I suppose the easiest way to start a review of Postal 2 would be for me to describe some horrible, shocking atrocity I'd committed, then make a wry comment about the state of videogames today. I'm not going to, because there really wasn't anything horrible or shocking about the game. There's plenty of things that fall under the heading of unpleasant, crude, or sickening, but nothing in it rises (or sinks, depending on your point of view) to the level of shock or horror. In order to shock or horrify people, there must be some element of novelty, or the unknown. Everything in this game is such an obvious retread that the only possible reaction possible is a grossed-out yawn. Even the inclusion of Gary Coleman seems odd—I mean, didn't even Gary Coleman stop making Gary Coleman jokes about three years ago?
While it's a normal occurrence for a game to be made with a specific audience in mind, Postal 2, goes farther than any game before it in this area. Based on the game's threadbare "story" and the fact that the playable character is a minor functionary at the Running With Scissors Corporation, it seems that the game is targeted at an audience of twenty-something video game designers with poor social skills and serious problems with women (as well as young boys who hope to someday become twenty-something video game designers with poor social skills and serious problems with women). The main source of conflict in the game is between the main character, named "Postal Dude," and his shrill live-in girlfriend, who dispatches him to run errands. These errands, such as picking up milk, or urinating on his father's grave, make up the game's mission-based structure.
This is where the dishonesty on the designers' part begins. In the manual, the game's main philosophy is laid out. It is supposedly only as violent a game as the player decides to make it. Of course, this isn't true. In fact, the game is almost impossible to beat playing it nonviolently. This is because no matter how demure the Postal Dude tries to be, he will be made the victim of roving groups of psychopaths, such as the video game protestors who attack the Running With Scissors company when the player arrives to pick up his paycheck, or the Pulp Fiction/Deliverance redneck sodomites that kidnap him. All of the enemy areas are linearly designed, hiding is impossible, and there are far too many enemies to run past safely. This means the only option available is violence, even if it is just in self-defense. Strangely, the game even acknowledges its startlingly linear structure in the lack of alternate cinema sequences or newspapers (which recap the previous day's events and give hints on how to progress). As the week wore on, the newspaper's headlines extensively mentioned a crazed spree killer that the police had called in the army to catch. Of course, I hadn't been randomly slaughtering anyone—so why didn't the newspaper change? In another instance, I was chased by a rocket-launcher wielding, crotch-themed mascot after I stole a toy. Rather than get into a fight with this abomination, I fled the scene. Later in a cinema scene, the Postal Dude bragged about killing the horrible thing.
The game also forces the player to agree with the designers' mindset. No attempt was made to accommodate anyone who tries to play the game in an untraditional manner, which is kind of the antithesis of everything an open-ended game is supposed to be. For example, on my second time through the game, I decided to gain the favor of some of the groups that had persecuted me the first time around. When I arrived at Running With Scissors, I slaughtered every worker I could find. Likewise, at the cathedral, I murdered all the Catholics that I came across. In either situation, once the "event" was triggered, the game protestors and terrorists were still out for my blood—couldn't they see that I was on their side?
As I understand it, going "postal" is having an extreme, violent reaction to the stresses of the everyday world. Shooting someone in self-defense is not going "postal," killing someone who cut in line at the movies is. What puzzled me most about the game was its total lack of interest in trying to put the player in a position where they would want to "go postal." Just to be clear, here's an example from real life: I went by the post office last week to mail a small package. There was only one person ahead of me, so I didn't imagine I would be waiting for too long. I then spent the next fifteen minutes listening to the clerk trying to explain the difference between a mail hold and a change of address to an old man who wasn't very clear about whether he was going on vacation or moving. By comparison, the post office in Postal 2 is the picture of clockwork efficiency. Yes, there was a line, but each person ahead of me took no more than thirty seconds to complete their business, and I was at the counter in under two minutes.
It seems like the crew at Running With Scissors have massively underestimated just how much it takes to drive the average person to murder.
So the game is dishonest about the fact that it encourages violence and revels in destruction—does that make it a bad game? No, not necessarily. I just didn't like the fact that the game promised one thing and delivered another. In order to be fair, I decided to put my conscience and decency on hold and play the game as it was intended. Unfortunately, it didn't hold up that way, either.
The game is rife with problems—first and foremost, there's the lack of any sense of reality. If I'm going to be running around shooting people, I'd appreciate them doing me the courtesy of falling down and dying. To kill someone I would regularly have to shoot them four to six times in the head with a pistol as they screamed and ran about, or, in some cases, stood absolutely still and returned fire. In a game like this, the lack of pain animations is inexcusable. If a bullet in someone's head isn't going to kill them, then they should at least react in some way to it, shouldn't they?
Even after applying the patch that fixed the game's loading times and added the "Tora Bora" level, the game's artificial intelligence was still annoyingly buggy. While trying to play the game non-violently, one of the ways I managed to survive the constant attacks was by running over to the nearest police officer and letting them handle my attacker. Every now and then, though, attempting this would only result in my "Wanted" level being raised, as if being shot at is a criminal activity. In one particularly confusing incident, during a bank robbery I stood absolutely still and found myself attacked by both the bank robbers and the police for no discernable reason.
The game's best qualities are its technical achievements. While the animation and artificial intelligence aren't anything to write home about, all the characters look quite good, as do the extremely large locations. The engine can handle large crowds onscreen without any trouble, but the large firefights that occurred on the higher difficulty levels did tend to get a little choppy. Another impressive feat is the level design—no boxes masquerading as buildings here. If there's a building anywhere in the game, chances are the player can go inside. There's even a nice amount of moderately-offensive Easter Eggs to be found in the buildings as a reward to the dedicated and patient player. Of course, the lack of any kind of a realistic physics engine does seem like something of a large oversight.
Judged as a video game, Postal 2's restrictive, repetitive, underdeveloped and overly-difficult gameplay combine to create a massively problematic experience. There is a silver lining, however, that the designers can be proud of. Each time I knocked someone's head off with a shovel or watched a flaming victim run around, setting others on fire, I did get a visceral thrill and a sense of satisfaction. However they did it, the makers of Postal 2 managed to tap into the part of me that wants to see horrible violence done to random strangers. So kudos on that. Since they're not good with the whole "game" thing, perhaps they would be better off just sticking to their strengths next time around, and market Postal 3 as a stress-relieving murder simulator.