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by Whiptail Interactive / Running With Scissors

Running With Scissors, whose "baddest-boys of game development" crown is pretty much uncontested these days, has finally come out with the long-awaited sequel to their notorious first venture. Postal 2 packs all the action, gore, blood, guts, vomit and Lieberman-jabs you could ever wish for, and that’s just on the packaging. It’s hard to situate Postal 2 on the spectrum of games. The game offers more than some other notoriously off-color titles (anyone remember Kingpin?), but falls short of creating the "scary because of the depth of interactivity" feeling that we get with one of the recent Grand Theft Auto titles. All in all, Postal 2 ends up being a mildly tittilating game that holds ferocious appeal for a certain group of gamers, will simply not cut it for another group, and will make Joe Lieberman whine like a little girl in front of Congress. So it’s not a failure by any stretch…

Here’s the premise: You play the Postal Dude, your average trailer park-livin’ cracker just looking to make ends meet. The idea here is that you guide the Postal Dude through his day, completing various mundane errands in your average, everyday American town. Of course, that’s putting things a bit too simply. The town of Paradise, where Postal 2 is set, is a nightmarish satire of Anytown, USA. Everyone packs lead (at least, by the end of the week they do), and the cops are ruthless. Walking around with your weapon drawn will attract attention from citizens ranging from ATF team members to the clergy, and those priests pack hot lead (in addition to whatever else they’re packing). Stand on the corner and you’re likely to witness a mugging in which the victim pulls out a machine gun to mow down her assailant, only to be mowed down in turn by a troupe of SWAT team heavies or beaten to a pulp by Sherriffs wielding batons.

The stated goal of Postal 2 is to put you into a living environment, not unlike Liberty or Vice City in the GTA titles. However, Paradise is not at all as large, complex, or interesting as the GTA cities. This is a little town where everyone walks. There are plenty of "wacky" businesses and locales – from the exotic arcade to the corner store and library. If you enter a person’s private residence, they will scream, run and call the cops. Or they might just pull out a shotgun and pepper your ass. But aside from scripted and reliable reactions like these, there’s very little interaction with the non-player characters (NPCs) in the game. In fact, the most responsive NPC is your dog, who will learn to follow you and attack your enemies if you feed him enough dog treats. He’ll also crap all over the town, leaving nasty steamers for everyone who follows.

The game plays like a standard first person shooter. You have an array of weapons, ranging from deadly throwing scissors to a lock-on rocket launcher. The basic pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and sniper rifle are present, as are more "creative" weapons such as gasoline and molotov cocktails. The gunplay and battles are well done. There are numerous situations you find yourself in where you must blast your way out. You’re often confronted with so many enemies that you can’t simply run and gun it; you must use some kind of strategic approach. Often that approach will involve setting up "fire lines" to ignite enemies as they blindly run into the inferno. This technique will save your life in a pinch.

Postal 2 also looks like you’d expect a game built on the Unreal Warfare engine to look. The graphics are good enough to bog down a high end machine when tweaked to the extreme. Physics and lighting effects are well-done – bodies fly around when blown up and crumple to the ground when shot. I noticed that when enemies are killed on an incline, their blood trickles down the slope and pools at the base. Environmental details are well-done, too. There are all kinds of surprises to notice. For example, every computer monitor displays the Old Man Murray website, which just goes to show how f*cked up the town of Paradise is. And given the frequency with which OMM updates, Postal 2 contains a pretty up-to-date representation.

The humor in Postal 2 is definitely not the kind that will appeal to mainstream America, but it has its fans, and they will laugh heartily several times. Hell, who wouldn’t laugh a good gut-chuckle at the sight of Gary Coleman mowing down cops with a machine gun? Or what about the lineup of SWAT, ATF, Sherriff, and National Guardsmen at the Hash Pipe stand (they call them Health Pipes in the game, but we know what those are for)? And who can deny the humor of a jive-talking scrotum with a rocket launcher? Other aspects of Postal 2 are hard to classify as humor. For example, it’s not exactly humorous that you encounter a situation very much like the Waco, Texas siege on the Branch Davidian Compound. But it’s in there. And I’m not sure anyone should be laughing about silencing your weapons by shoving them up a cat’s ass, but you’ve gotta do it in order to pull off those home-invasion robberies that will get you the goods you need to keep the Postal Dude alive and progressing through the game.

But it’s not all gags and guts in Postal 2. There are some very real gameplay issues. The most noticeable and detrimental issue is load times. These load times average 20-30 seconds, but can get up to 45 seconds or so with the auto-save feature enabled. The length of time in and of itself is not so bad, but the frequency with which the game loads is inexcusable. Granted, there are a lot of NPCs and you can generally enter and explore every building in town, but it’s not a big town. It is way too common, when traveling from errand A to errand B, for you to spend more time looking at load screens than actually moving the character. It may take 30 seconds to load an area that you can cross in 10. This gets incredibly tedious and will ruin the game for the less patient or those who are not as entertained by looking at a cat butt on the end of your shotgun. In an age where load times are becoming less noticeable and disappearing altogether in the majority of games, this seems like an archaic throwback to games of yore.

As I mentioned, the interactivity promised by the game developers is not really there. Sure, you can either walk down the street with your weapon holstered and remain fairly unaccosted, or you can pull out your shotgun and start a gorefest that will rival the lawnmower scene in Dead Alive. But that’s not really interactivity. As I stated before, the "interactivity" that Postal 2 offers is best summed up by whether you want to commit home invasion style robberies or not. And if you choose not to, then you probably won’t be able to advance in the game. So where’s the choice here? This is like choosing between McDonald’s and Burger King – it’s all crap. It’s sad that the most responsive and reliable NPC is your dog.

I try not to get hung up on the myth of interactivity. A game doesn’t have to go very far in providing me with unique opportunities for interacting with NPCs in order for me to enjoy it – I often enjoy games that are fairly linear in their scope and exposition but convey a good narrative. Postal 2 begins with a fairly promising progression. Contemplate the whole concept of going postal: The term arises from the early 1990s when there were a couple of isolated cases of postal workers who got too stressed out and brought guns to work. The concept was most vividly illustrated in the fictional film, Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas. The idea of "going postal" relies on an individual being pushed to the edge by life’s mundane realities – paperwork, lines, technicalities, oppressive class structures, etc.

In the beginning of the game, Postal 2 seems to want to work in this vein. The Postal Dude is fired from his job at Running With Scissors, he must wait in line to pay for his milk, then he must wait in line to cash his paycheck, then he must wait in line to confess at church, and he must wait in line to get a Gary Coleman autograph. Cutting in line will really piss off the other folks waiting. These kinds of details could have built into genuine frustration on the part of the gamer. By the time you have to wait in your fourth or fifth line you begin to really want to mow down the other folks ahead of you. However, the game doesn’t really push this line-waiting to its limit. After the first couple of days, waiting in line is a thing of the past. It seems to me that in constructing a game around the concept of a person being "pushed to the edge", Running With Scissors could have pushed the gamer a bit more. They take great pains in the instruction manual to remind you that you aren’t required to behave inappropriately in the game (although you really are), but that it’s "up to you." As it is, the only thing that made me really want to kill anyone were the load times, and playing the game more didn’t relieve that frustration at all. I would have loved to see Postal 2 really work to push the gamer, making them so pissed at the world that they truly felt like going Postal.

Finally, Postal 2 just isn’t that transgressive. After games like Conker’s BFD, Kingpin, and Duke Nukem, Postal 2 doesn’t seem that out there. Sure, it will get Congress pissed off, but that’s about as tough as making teenagers depressed. It will offend all kinds of groups, but so does Spongebob Squarepants. Running With Scissors decides to stay away from the sexual violence, which could have made this game as freaky as a 1980s slasher flick or a downright frightening rape simulator, and I can’t say that I find fault with the developers’ decision to stay away from that sort of thing. Adding in that sort of content would have brought a whole new set of creepy feelings to bear on the game. So where could a game like Postal 2 go to get more transgression? My suggestion is this: a better plot. A better story could have created more involvement with the characters; instead here we are playing a nameless guy in a game that uses shopping lists as its major storytelling device, and I find it hard to care.

In the end, Postal 2 is fairly entertaining for a once-through. The game is incredibly short – the plot plays out over five weekdays and through close to 20 main errands. There are diversions (you could, for example, just choose to take out the police station or mow down bums in the train yards), but overall you can beat this game in a day easily. You can turn up the difficulty, which ranges from "Lieberman" to "Hestonworld", but that’s never been my idea of "more fun". Upon completing the game, you unlock the "enhanced" mode. This mode bears some interesting differences and could entice you to whiz through the game one more time, but only because the whole thing is so short. The game would be much shorter, too, if there weren’t so many load screens, and it’s the idea of sitting through so many load screens that stopped me halfway through my second play through.

Overall, I recommend Postal 2 for the gamer who is really intent on playing every game that their mom, congressman, and clergy don’t want them to play. If you love dirty jokes, radical patriotism, and gun-nuts, then you’ll probably find a lot to like in this game. Be warned that the load times are going to annoy the crap out of you, and you’ll be really pissed when you see the lame ending. I hope Running With Scissors continues to put out indy games, and I hope that they decide not to pull any punches and follow through with their good ideas in Postal 3.

Shawn Rider   (04/11/2003)


Ups: Lots of action; edgy humor; indy games are a good thing.

Downs: Lame plot; limited interaction; insanely crappy loads.

Platform: PC