|Game Name:||Postal Plus|
|Developer(s):||Running With Scissors|
|Release Date:||Mar, 2001|
The original Postal came out in 1997, while anti-game violence sentimentality was still high, Lieberman was still preaching from the Senate floor, and before the wave of school shootings would have made this particularly tasteless in the U.S. The “Special Delivery” pack came out in 1998, and as its only contribution to single-player was a meager addition of 4 maps, there’s little point in reviewing them separately. Hence, Postal Plus (aka/re-released as “Postal: Classic and Uncut”); the definitive collection of the original game, and the version you’ll likely find packaged in any current or future combo packs to come.
First, let’s just lay it out on the table. Postal is not a great game. I’ll get into why later in the review, but essentially, the execution is somewhat broken. The idea itself… well, you are essentially playing the same violent shooter from before and after this game’s release – the difference is that here, the wholesale slaughter of innocents and cops draws attention to itself. You’re actually looking at the violence this time, whereas if you were blasting aliens, or mercenaries, or “the enemy,” you wouldn’t even think twice about the content. In that sense, perhaps Runs With Scissors has accomplished making a noteworthy statement.
But that’s not the point. You’re not supposed to take serious issue with your actions within the game. Instead, Vince Desi and crew took the Exidy route – they knew they didn’t have the resources to go head-to-head with triple-A studio titles, so they went for publicity through controversy. Tasteless as the game may be, it would get people talking. And to be fair, you’re never actually required to kill any civilians. Only someone carrying a gun counts toward completing the level. Though civilian deaths callously go unconsidered and unpunished, they are dead because you either weren’t careful, or made a specific choice. And while that was probably a concession to the ESRB to get an “M” rating (or at least a talking point in the discussion), it did up the bar of what was allowed to pass in videogames. That is why we’re still looking at Postal today, instead of any of the similar shooters from that era. Do you even remember Meat Puppet?
So that’s the game plan. Take an isometric shooter, insert a lot of everyday characters, remove any rules, and channel the whole disenfranchised, angry vibe that was floating around 90s teens. The shooting of regular people tries to pass here as “lighthearted fun” or “a stress-reliever” and reminds me of some of the more notorious user-created flash games on Newgrounds in the late 90s (far more brutal than anything in this game). Rage was fashionable then. The less of a fuck you gave about anything, the more credibility you had.
And that’s as far as it goes, which is part of why Postal isn’t a great game. You simply shoot innocents and aggressors alike without consequences, and that’s it – the game doesn’t try to be anything more than an anarchy simulator. Postal 2, maybe by virtue of details afforded by the improved technology, at least has clear satire throughout. You had a mission where you actually had to go and piss on your father’s grave, fercrissakes. Postal 1, however, rarely bothers.
There’s nothing funny about shooting cops. Really, there’s nothing funny about shooting anyone, and any humor comes from the situation. Blowing up the out-of-place marching band is kind of funny. Attacking the ostrich farm, then having an errant ostrich appear in every level after, is odd, but funny. Shooting down the protesters outside Runs With Scissors’ office is… well, pretty self-serving of them, but barely funny. I’ve just listed out the three times in the original release that something satirical, ironic, or joking gets tried. The rest is just violence without a point; a journey, without context or comment, into the mind of a violent sociopath. It really is just a game about “going postal”, whose only real defense is that “it’s just a game.”
The manual implies some semblance of a story. Your character, the “Postal Dude,” is evicted from his home. It’s the last straw in a Falling Down-esque series of bad days, which further convinces him that the town is infected with some kind of virus. He fights his way through 17 levels of woods, trailer parks, factories, and the city to get the outlying military airbase, where he believes he’ll find the source of the infection. His nonsensical ramblings on the load screens, as well as subtle hints in the levels themselves (is there something to the strange music in the woods?) set up a slight “is he crazy or is this real?” side plot. This never develops directly throughout the game, but does get answered tidily in a final cutscene.
Graphics, surprisingly, are striking. Backgrounds are all hand-drawn artwork of cities and outlying areas, beautifully colored, somewhat stylistically drawn, but overall, very sharp. There were talented artists in that group. Characters are loose collections of 3D polygons, while the engine cuts out parts of the 2D background to define depth. The characters are clunky and merely functional, but the benefit of this setup is that it doesn’t mandate a specific perspective. The characters can be rotated, per level, in relation to the background and camera, and look fine in any situation. So, as you progress through the game, you’ll switch around from 3/4, almost-side, and overhead perspectives. It does work to keep the game fresh. Rounding out the graphics are some basic lighting effects that brighten the characters as they run by lamps, and some impressive explosions and fire.
The carnage you create is intentionally outrageous. Civilians fall easily, but police and soldiers are a little sturdier and take more time, or stronger weapons, to drop. After an absurd amount of ammunition (such as 4-5 point-blank shotgun shells), they will fall to a defeated animation where they writhe around in pain, or drag themselves along the ground, trailing blood. They eventually expire on their own, but you can speed this process with the use of the “execution” key. You have to kill a set percentage of hostiles before you can continue, and they’re not considered dead in this defeated state, so there actually is a limited practical application to executing soldiers to meet your quota if you’re about to die. Similarly, a “suicide” key is a handy way to restart the level after it becomes clear you’ve taken too much damage to proceed.
Unfortunately, the critical combat is frequently too frustrating. A large part of this comes from the game design – you can’t throw grenades over simple objects like fences, and trying to bank them around corners usually causes them to catch on walls or bounce back. You have a small x-ray circle around yourself when you disappear behind objects, but enemies don’t. It leads to battles where you try to aim at hidden attackers masked by objects in the camera’s way. Vests of armor are very rare, and only offer 5-10 points of protection if you should find them. Health is similarly in short supply, conveying meager bonuses when kits are found. The sheer amount of ammo it takes to knock out a single foe makes things tough as well, with better weapons like the flamethrower or homing rocket launcher perpetually low on ammo.
Controls share the blame too. You can’t easily tell where you’re aiming. A crosshair will appear on the enemy you’re currently shooting, which is only somewhat helpful since the blood splatters make that fairly obvious anyway, but you’ll get no other help in lining up shots. The best you can do is see what direction Postal Dude’s gun is pointed in, fire off a few test shots, and use those to correct your aim – but good luck if your target is moving, or if you’re using a heavy weapon with rare ammo, like the rocket launcher. Because of these issues, I found myself playing almost the entire game with the default, infinite-ammo machine gun in a spray-and-pray mode. It works, but it’s pretty boring, and it subjects you to attacks you can’t help feel that you could have avoided with a better targeting system.
Limited controls also make it difficult to keep from getting hit. You can hold down a key to strafe, which helps in getting the drop on guys around corners, but you’re not fast enough to get back out of the way. There are no rolls or dives such as with Die Hard Trilogy. This means most of your fights will be drunken gunfighter shootouts, where you simultaneously plug away and take damage until someone falls.
Meanwhile, rocket and napalm shooting guys will ruin your day on sight. That’s the stuff that will really piss you off – you’re just a few kills away from beating the level when an explosion takes you out. A “duck” key is included to have you duck under incoming rockets, but it does dick for the homing variants, and won’t stop a wall of fire. And if your timing is off, you can look forward to Mortal Kombat-style combos where rocket after rocket bounces you through the air until you die. It’s these issues that caused me to quickly jump to the next level as soon as my quota was met, rather than strive for 100% kills (for which you receive nothing at all anyway).
The quality of the sounds is average; their implementation is a pain in the ass. Music only exists in the loading and menu screens, and is some kind of industrial horror mix to fit the psychotic theme. Effects of gunfire and explosions are pretty standard; not much to say. The dialogue is a real groaner. Perhaps in an attempt at humor, everyone in the levels is an annoying caricature spouting ridiculous lines. Guards scream like Ned Flanders (you’ll know it if you hear it), women wail “The horror! The horror!” and the dying groan and lament the fact that they’re having a very bad day.
The real problem is that only a handful of lines were recorded, so by the end of the first level, you’ve heard all the characters have to say, minus an occasional contextual one-liner from Postal Dude. Even worse is that defeated characters will literally loop the same cry over and over again until they die – so get ready for “Has anyone seen my EAR? Has anyone seen my EAR? Has anyone seen my EAR? Has anyone seen my EAR?” If nothing else, it gives another practical use for the execution key.
The Special Delivery add-on offers little value for single-player, with only 4 new levels. While it does add new civilian characters and new dialogue, these are limited to just the new levels and not carried retroactively across the original (a bummer for those playing Postal Plus). If there was ever any moral message or plot in the first, it gets completely thrown out for the Special Delivery levels. Postal Dude will hit such highlights as gunning down the masses in a Wal-Mart knockoff for refusing to stock Postal, shooting apart a shantytown, and laying waste to a resort, complete with senior citizens and naked sunbathers. If you loves you the Postal, then you’ll be right at home. The real value is for multiplayer, with some cooperative, capture the flag, and deathmatch games available. You also get a series of single-player challenges, like timed modes, or capturing a flag under a gauntlet of computer defenders. Your scores are reflected on an arcade-style hall of fame, and these modes, plus a full-featured editor for those interested, manage to eek a little more value out of the price.
On a final, modern note, use caution if you’re intending to spend money on this. Postal Plus will run on WinXP, but with a series of (currently unpatched) bugs – bodies spin around in place when they fall, you cannot turn left with the keyboard (even if you change the keys), and the mouse slings you around even more inaccurately than it should. These are not supposed to occur if the game is running correctly. Even running a virtual copy of Win98 wouldn’t work; I had to go back to the Win98 box with the actual 1990s hardware for accurate play. If you’re thinking about going after something like the Fudge Pack, and really want to play the original Postal, it’s definitely worth an email to RWS to see if they cleaned it up for XP/Vista support. Or at the very least, grab the original demo and see how it performs on your system first.
Postal’s not very clever, it’s not very impressive, and sometimes it’s not very fun. I would have enjoyed it more if the controls were cleaned up, and it had more attempts at satire. Instead, it’s pretty much what it sounds like – a sandbox of senseless violence and unchecked destruction. If that interests you, you’ll still have inaccurate aiming, constrained movement, and a lot of repetition to contend with. All morality aside, it’s worth a play if bundled with a collection, but too flawed to seek it out exclusively.
Great background art. Arcade fun when it’s working. Victory for freedom of speech and all. Been out for 11 years and hasn’t caused people to kill each other yet.
Difficult to aim or move accurately. Annoying repetition of sound. Not funny or kooky like the sequel. Spends more time being a jolly “fuck you” to censorship than being an engaging game.