Postal 2 goes out of its way to offend and amuse. The horror/humour will be in the brain of the player, but this is definitely an adults-only game. Strange, given that all the jokes are incredibly puerile. Prepare to be shocked, therefore? Not necessarily. For all its brass-necked bravado, Postal 2 is the only first-person shooter which I have fallen asleep to (the truth I swear), during one the many Loading Sequences That Are Too Frequent and Too Long .I could only transmit some of the experience of playing this game by offering 1-minute interruptions to the review during which you might like to inspect your monitor for dust, promise to do something about that shelf, or whatever it is you do while waiting for something to happen on screen. This is not a joke. Postal 2’s game world is a sprawling hamlet with parts that become unlocked over time. Mission target areas are dotted around the large, single map, which means a lot of walking from your trailer home as well as perhaps half a dozen between-map load screens. Each one takes from 30 seconds to a minute, which is insane compared to the 5-second hiccups in between, say, Half-Life map sections. How far we have come in the last 5 years! Oh yeah, time for a break, just like one of those Loading Sequences That Are Too Frequent and Too Long and really break the flow of excitement. To be fair, a lot of the mission climaxes occur within encapsulated spaces, like a meat factory or a parcel center, but incidental encounters and general adventuring are cruelly cut up by these ubiquitous tunnels bearing hour-glass warning signs which mean it’s time to watch the progress bar fill up.
Apart from this hideous gash in the face of the game, it’s not too bad. This could be compared to saying your best friend is a great chap apart from his tendency to murder people, but who knows, it might not bother you. The game’s non-hero is the Postal Dude, a goateed soon-to-be former employee of Running With Scissors (RWS), the makers of the game who also feature in the game. In the opening mission the Dude has to go pick up his paycheck from RWS; here he walks past orange-clad anti-video game protesters, who rampage into the building once the Dude gets his money (and the sack). Cue running gun-battles between RWS employees and the “Concerned Parents” protesters.
There you have the template for all the rest of the missions. Each “job” on the daily roster involves going to a target spot, meeting someone or picking something up and thus triggering a catastrophe which normally involves a massed a*ault on the building you’re in. It’s then your job to fight your way out, defeating both enemies and the environment to escape. The two strands of the game are, therefore, these “go fetch” missions, which can be quite repetitive, and random criminal acts that occur outside the mission context. The free-form action itself splits into being nasty to innocents and encountering bands of easily recognisable enemies.
Book-burners, rednecks, butchers, Osama Bin Laden clones and people who don’t like video games: they all hate the Dude and will open fire when they see him. Retaliation becomes tricky if cops are around. This makes for an interesting game strategy. You can run and hide, or lure the loonies to somewhere quiet and dispatch them there without exciting the feds. In most cases as soon as weapons are produced a cop will intervene and a shoot-out will begin. Please stop me if you’ve heard this all before, say, in Grand Theft Auto 3.
The level of violence in this game is as extreme as you want it to be. You may choose to walk from A to B, do your business, and only fire back when attacked. Or you might want to walk up behind someone and knock their head off with a well-aimed swing of your spade. To make things worse you can kick the headless corpse down the road, marking a red splodgey trail. By far more horrible is setting fire to someone using petrol and a lit match or shoulder-launched napalm canisters. They scream, run around, set fire to others around them, and finally drop to the floor in red-and-black heaps.
The Unreal graphics engine goes largely to waste here. Environments are bland and interiors especially are bare and samey. The levels have the feel of something you could download off a fan-site. The trademark Unreal flame effect, on the other hand, gets a lot of use. There is an obsession with burning buildings, (including a cult compound boasting a “Pyroclastic Auditorium”) as well as people. Nearly every mission culminates with collapsing roof-beams and smouldering floors. The extreme point of this fetish is reached inside the heart of a napalm factory, no less.
Although Postal 2 will certainly cater to your inner maniac I doubt that these horror-film extremes will provoke the kind of reaction that RWS must be hoping for. Remember that calling for something to be banned is a certain way to improve sales (although, has this worked for the Dixie Chicks?). So it’s in the game developers’ interest to offend as many people as possible, and they use a shotgun approach to the shock: lots of it and often.
The relationship between shock-value and entertainment-value can be unhappy. Those first shudders of prissy horror can soon fade as we become inured to yet another sniper attack and corpse kicking. The dynamics of the game have to be wider and deeper than just gore. In Postal 2 the nearest thing to a game theme is deciding how sociopathic you want to be. The burden of entertainment is therefore left with the mayhem, the humour and the social comment, which deserve special mention.
A book signing by Gary Coleman, gun-toting priests and cats “riding shotgun” in the worst possible sense are a few examples. I must not detail the superb in-your-face insult made by cult members to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms during a Waco-style siege. Senator Joe Lieberman, outspoken supporter of video-game censorship, also gets name-checked. Billboards are used often and well to present jokes, from the surreal – “Marmoset Basketball”, satirical – “Fee of America” for Bank of America, to the s**ty – “Give Her your Meat” as a 50s-style promotional poster for meat products.
The longest running gag is also an effective element of the gameplay: the ability to urinate on command. Not only can this feature (is it a weapon or merely an inventory item?) be used for comedy or shock effect, but there are times when flames need to be put out, even about your own person. For once it’s not just a gimmick – one’s waste water can be used to save one’s own life, f**hten people away and even operate machinery. And neglecting the call of nature can lead to “a burning sensation” which can only be cured, quite symbolically, by relieving yourself into a medical automat.
While Postal 2 may be riddled with jokes like a dead rat is with maggots, the wise-cracking protagonist is often grating in a way that Duke Nukem and Serious Sam never were. A knowing smirk can only take the game forward to a certain point, beyond which some other element, hopefully sheer fun, has to take over. This doesn’t quite happen with Postal 2. It seems to run out of steam around the 3rd day, when the missions start to resemble chores.
In the opening mission, one of the placards waved by the anti-video game mob says “Censor RWS’ sh*tty games”. There are two points being made here: One is that the game should be censored – which is what people will continue to fight about, and the other is that the game isn’t really that good. While there is certainly some enjoyment to be had here, nothing elevates Postal 2 from the mundane. It has to be recorded as a naughty FPS with some good moments and one HUGE scar all the way across it – something that would prevent any game from getting a high score. I am of course talking about Loading Sequences That Are Too Frequent and Too Long. No, seriously, you have to believe me. I mean – a whole minute?