Postal Plus

Postal Plus
2.5
Game Name: Postal Plus
Platforms: Windows 95
Publisher(s): Softek
Developer(s): Running With Scissors
Genre(s): Shooter
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.

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Blast through oil fields, bridges, trailer parks, and other scenic West Texas locales.

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 simply shoot innocents and aggressors alike without consequences, and that’s it. Your goal is to stay alive long enough to meet the level’s quota of enemy kills – “enemies” here are defined by cops, soldiers, or anyone with a gun. Unarmed civilians wander around as well and do not count toward level completion, but there are no consequences for killing them accidentally or intentionally either.

You’ll repeat this through 17 levels until the end. Disappointingly, the game doesn’t try to be anything more than an anarchy simulator, or a game about about “going postal,” making it basically a bigger budget Newgrounds game. 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.

Any gags come from the absurd situations. 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. The manual gives a throwaway goal, and Postal Dude’s 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, but this never develops directly throughout the game. It does, however, 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.

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There’s some gorgeous background art if you stick with it.

The carnage you create is intentionally outrageous. Civilians fall easily, but police and soldiers take more time, or stronger weapons, to drop. After a ridiculous 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 collapse on their own, but you can speed this process with the use of the “execution” key. Enemies don’t count toward your level tally 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 at you. 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. Movement is always relative to the direction the Dude is facing, and some of the perspective changes (isometric especially) get confusing because of this. You also can’t easily tell exactly where you’re aiming. A crosshair will appear on the enemy you’re currently shooting (the blood splatters make that fairly obvious anyway), but you’ll get no actual help in aiming. 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.

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Fire, as you would expect, is lovingly rendered.

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 move 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, women wail “The horror! The horror!” and the dying groan and lament the fact that they’re having a very bad day.

Worse, only a handful of lines were recorded. 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.

"Waddya mean you don't carry Postal?"

“Waddya mean you don’t carry Postal?”

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). 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.

 

The Good

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. Infamy must have worked out for Postal – after all, do you even remember Meat Puppet?

The Bad

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.

 

3 Comments

  1. Daniel says:

    Running With Scissors have released a patched executable, fixing the spinning bodies and control problems on newer systems. It can be found in the game’s support forums at GOG.com. I don’t know why GOG.com haven’t integrated it into their own installer yet, or at least offer it among the official extra downloads.

    I pretty much agree on the game itself. What many creators of controversial games or films fail to realise, I think, is that most people don’t dislike violent games because they think they’re dangerous and should be prohibited, but because it’s simply not entertaining and a turn-off. And most of those creators are so busy trying to be controversial, they don’t bother trying to make a good game or film as well, or at least provide some context for the violence. Like nudity, even if you aren’t a prude it will bother you if it doesn’t fit naturally and is called for by the plot, but was obviously just plastered all over the place by a half-giggling half-drooling 12-year-old. Violence and gore could have been fun for a while when you were trying to show your friends the hardcore stuff you got your hands on, and to shock your parents. But I think most of us passed that phase with puberty.

    • The J Man says:

      Thanks for the update on the patch!

      I’d actually forgotten about this game/review. And it reminds me I should look into Postal 2. I remember them trying a bit harder in that one – for better or worse.

      • Daniel says:

        I liked the second part quite a bit better, even though most of the humour was a bit too juvenile for my tastes. Postal 2 works as a commentary on the videogame violence debate, while the first one just sort of tried to make a point. While in the first you were sent out to kill so-and-so many “hostiles”, if I remember correctly you never actually have to hurt anyone in Postal 2.

        In contrast to some other games that use it simply as a cheap excuse, Postal 2 really is only as violent as the player wants it to be. With the fun twist being, of course, that everyone else seems out to get you. The game gives you those mundane and rather innocent tasks, and just keeps provoking you to the extreme. Like Postal, it’s rather short and not much of a game you’d come back to after playing it once, but for that one time I realy enjoyed how it turned the violence controversy completely on its head.

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