A Blast from the Past review
FBT remembers Postal 2 as an ironic giggle n' guns-fest through life's little annoyances.
He was looking forward to this one.
The original Postal, taking the phrase for a mid-eighties spate of postal workers gunning down co-workers, featured an insane lead character killing his way through his home town. It generated so much controversy the United States Postal Service tried to sue developers Running with Scissors and it was proclaimed public enemy number one; well, one of three enemies in Liebermann’s ‘worst things in America’ (the others were Marylin Mason and Calvin Klein ads). It’s no surprise then that the sequel, even before hitting the shelves was considered the most dangerous game ever released; this time you’d be murdering in a free-form, open world 3D environment and in first person; up close and personal, just like in real-life the campaigners panicked. It was the end times.
While Rockstar’s Manhunt largely owned 2003 as the game everyone loved to hate, Postal 2 still cooked up some outrage; it was blamed for some unrelated violence, banned from most US supermarkets and even appeared in the Black-Eyed-Peas’ Where is the Love video, showing kids playing it while the band watched sadly (Rather than responsibly taking it off the kids). Fair enough, the BEP’s music makes me go Postal. Briefly known as the most violent and notorious game ever released, Postal 2’s reputation has faded over time, replaced with better, more efficient murder-simulators but for a while it was the Moral Campaigners poster-child. After a poster of Marylin Manson in some Calvin’s, presumably.
Of course, the efforts to ban Postal 2 did the opposite; I heard about PII through reputation not reviews and bought for that reason. Friends and beers gathered around to snigger and giggle as we rampaged and were utterly uninspired to do the same in the real world. I remember PII as a game that tricked you into revealing your psychopathic urges; it wasn’t evil, you were - you could complete it without harming anyone, something the morally outraged ignored (Or more likely didn’t know, since it’s doubtful they played what outraged them so much) - but you weren’t going to play Postal peacefully. It really got the idea that hell is other people and it explored exactly what you’d do if life’s everyday annoyances came with a shotgun. With the world the way it is and me a lot less patient than I was in 2003, I can’t think of a better time to go Postal 2 again.
Still a Blast?
I’d forgotten how PII’s levels are broken out into days, each getting progressively worse. I, The Postal Dude, wake on Monday to the sound of a wife nagging me to fulfil her to-do list; get paid, cash paycheck, get milk. Easy.
I launch myself in Monday ready to let humanity do its worst. Paradise, the town we’re in, looks 15yrs old and while it’s basic even for 2003, it works and it doesn’t take long to get the lay of the land. The inhabitants of Paradise though, are insane and asking for it. They yell, shout, walk into you, flip the bird, vomit, drink, dance, stop dead, turn suddenly, dawdle; standard everyday people. At one point my progress is hindered by a marching band. But I don’t feel like going Postal.
As I head through town, I grab various other weapons and a cat, which takes me back. The Cat silencer, which triggered hysterics back in the day, consisted of sticking its butt on the machine gun or pump-action and it muffled the gunfire. I start to recall PII had many an immature moment but I always defended those as subversive or cynical moments; Smoking crack gives Dude a huge health bump but he also gets addicted and loses more health if you don’t keep using them. That’s obvious, but there’s a nice touch in the way Dude will keep changing the selected inventory item back to a crackpipe. Miss the change and you find yourself accidently smoking it even when your health is totally maxed. After a pleasant enough walk, I reach work; the Running with Scissors office. Meta. Once I’ve found RwS’ boss man the office is stormed by anti-game protestors. Postal 2 had pre-scripted shooting sequences where you’d trigger some violent act by a 3rd party and have to fight your way out and it’s a bit of a shame to have forced enemies, I was enjoying getting from A to B and testing my patience. The groups you encounter will turn hostile whenever they spot you after that scene too, increasing the postal oppotunities.
Besides the protestors, we also draw the ire of book burners, Rednecks and Survivalists amongst others plus there’s the corrupt cops and later FBI/Swat guys and the National Guard, all with itchy trigger fingers. Random fights can break out at any time and ‘Dude’ can catch a bullet or the blame. There’s also the trifling matter of Al-Qaeda who are given to suicide bombings and almighty shoot-outs. The game’s tagline was ‘ever had one of those days’ but I’ve never had a day where Vegetarians shoot me for killing cows. I’ve had days where I seem to spend forever queuing, which seems to be the main source of annoyance in the game but I queue for my milk, pay and walk out then go ‘Oh?’. It never occurred to me to pull the trigger; my patience never wore thin and I wonder if I’ll ever go Postal unprovoked.
About the only kind thing you can say about PII’s FPS aspect is it’s of its time. During the RwS fight the protesters all got stuck in the office door allowing me (and the boss) to mow down most of them. Shooting is very hit/miss and clunky. There’s a huge array of weapons to choose from, melee through to rocket launchers including gross out stuff like an Anthrax-infused Cow’s head. One of PII’s melee weapons is Dude’s penis. He can whip it out and piss on people. Hit them in the face and they’ll stop to throw up. If he leaves it unzipped you can flash people, which sometimes triggers a gunfight; the game often tries to prod a hidden juvenile streak, but after a while you want a hidden satire streak to begin. It can be argued using piss as a melee weapon isn’t supposed to be taken seriously (and if I do, the jokes on me) or that it’s a comment on other game’s weapon choices, but I think I’m reaching; RwS just think pissing is funny.
I reach Wednesday’s chores without really feeling aggrieved enough to brutalise anyone and I’m starting to think PII doesn’t have the balls to go through with its own outrage. It’s just gross-out not sly sarcasm, like they watched South Park and completely missed the subtlety, and that’s not me misreading PII the way some thought Fight Club was about violence - I want the tension, the frustration of everyday life to wear me down and snap; that’s a dangerous game, one that explores or exposes what we’d do if pissed off and armed. A game that really does satirise the moral panic and the righteous right, explore supposed game addiction and the contested causal link between games and anti-social behaviour. P1 was blamed for all that and more, heralded as downright evil and inspiring people to murder; PII should have answered those accusations; and I thought it did. I had in mind an original, cunning black-comedy beneath some media-baiting, a game was both making a comment and not to be taken seriously but … it’s actually just infantile. At first I wondered if modern games had ruined PII for me; thanks to the huge worlds of Skyrim, Mass Effect and GTA it’s no big deal to walk for an hour, take on thankless tasks, wait an age for an NCP to stop talking; queue for five minutes? Completed it mate. But it’s not that. PII just isn’t antagonistic in the way it thinks it is. There’s nods to politics, mass media and moral outrage, but it’s unexplored and buried under offensive and misjudged moments. I can take insults and over-the-line commentary if it has some guts to it, but this is just crass. It’s not social satire to have an arcade game called Fag Hunter, unless I get to blast those playing it - but no one's playing it but Dude. It’s like PII took lessons from the Howard Stern school of Offend Everyone Equally but failed the exam.
Without any demonstrable wit or comment there’s a lot to be offended by and with no subtext, no commentary it comes off as nasty; The Al-Qaeda terrorists are not a satire on Bush’s reactionary and directionless War On Terror, they’re caricatures and generalisations; The local convenience store is run by an Apu (Hindu) rip-off yet it’s is revealed he runs an Al-Qaeda base. We visit Uncle Dave’s compound and there’s an FBI/ATF-style cordon around it, a nod to the Branch Davidians siege but what’s it saying? A parody of the government’s handling of it? No, and that massacre is not something to make funnies about without also saying something serious. Homophobia is present in a DLC level that brings Fag Hunter to life. Dude’s wife is known as ‘The Bitch’ and the women are either overweight or seemingly scanned from the pages of RwS’s porn collection. When compared to its peers PII just comes across as late to the party, telling dad jokes. To think Manhunt was the same year; for all its horrors, it truly had something to say about violence as entertainment. PII has a level where Dude catches Gonorrhoea.
By the time I’d reached Friday (Or Sunday if you picked up the Apocalypse Weekend add-on) I’d been murdering and mayhem’ing my way through Paradise for a few days, mostly because everyone by this point is armed and pissed off making it impossible and pointless to even try to do the chores peacefully. Basically, everyone but me has gone Postal. I’ve battled a scrotum-shaped Kids TV Character, got Gary Coleman’s autograph, been forced to become a Redneck’s gimp and pissed on Dad’s grave. Somehow none of it was fun.
Even if you ignore the wasted opportunity, the unforgivable tone, the schoolboy humour and the bargain-basement shooter mechanics, Postal 2 even fails at going Postal; There’s a million mini frustrations in everyone’s day, how is it that the only frustration in the game is queuing?! PII just doesn’t have anything to say and with nothing to add to the debate; it’s aged into something insulting not timely; it would have been incredible to revisit PII and find it’s themes more relevant today than 15yrs ago but now I can’t see anything worth defending let alone playing; Worst of all, it failed to make me go Postal.
RwS does maintain a strong and dedicated band of fans, and they remain active on their website (which no longer features a Postal Babe of the Day, they’re growing up) - the games continuously get updated and upgraded. 2015 saw another PII add-on and 2017 had a Postal Redux release; which generated zero outrage. RwS just seem to be recycling the same piss for the same fans. But with so much to be really outraged at those days, a Postal 4 done right could be a return to form; Trump, Corruption, Big Business, a nation divided; but it’ll inevitably make fart jokes, feature ISIS and have a mission where you queue up to use a gender-neutral bathroom. And, sadly, it’ll barely cause a ripple. It’s really saying something about the state of the world if a game all about raging against society doesn’t provoke a reaction – RwS should make a game about that moral decline.
As I try to find something nice to say about PII, a game I loved on release, one that I defended and celebrated until now, I find myself arguing I’ve fallen for a meta-satire. The original Postal put you in the bloody shoes of a delusional maniac who kills his way towards an elementary school. A satire on the media hysteria around spree-shooting, hidden as a celebration of it? Postal was RwS’s first game; it’s as if a satirist chose the very medium blamed for spree-shooters to make their point. In Postal 2, every possible contentious subject is literally pissed on; It’s a mockery of hysterical reactions and exposes people’s own prejudices; if you weren’t offended, you were the problem. Postal III was unfinished and unplayable; But, RwS didn’t develop it, they outsourced it - a comment on labels forcing devs to release unfinished games? Its plot encouraged you to follow the peaceful route to get the ‘good’ ending; considering Postal's entire point, surely a parody on choice-based games like Bioshock and Mass Effect. RwS followed PIII with an apology DLC where PIII was just a dream and Dude teams up with his old enemies – Al Qaeda included - A commentary on game franchises being inconsistent and forgetting their roots. And they sold the movie rights to Uwe Boll. That’s a subversive comment on publishers selling out their games. I get it now, Postal is a digital art installation, a massive social comment on gaming and we fell for it at every turn; both fans and haters are the punchline. Wait, I think I’ve finally gone Postal.
2003 | Developer Running With Scissors I Publisher Whiptail Interactive / RWS