Let's offer a disclaimer first: Postal 2 is not for everyone. It deals with graphic material, including arson, bestial sodomy, scatological humor, and all manners of political incorrectness. Should you be one of those people who like to watch films like George W. Bush does with the violence, sex and cussing "cleansed" from the movie, you'll most likely puke or faint during Postal 2. (Also: Please look away from the disturbing screenshots to the right of here)
For the rest of you, read on.
If you ever played Grand Theft Auto 3, you'll remember having periodic fits of frustration where you'll simply take it out on the denizens of
Liberty City and then, of course, quickly reload so you can retry the last mission again. Running With Scissors capitalizes on this tangent and basically runs with it for the course of Postal 2. It plays on this small subset of Grand Theft Auto, sans the vehicles, by letting you create havoc, chaos and mayhem without any repercussions. The violence is cruder and more lewd here than before. One of the first "weapons" you're introduced to is the shovel, and it happens to be the melee weapon of choice for everyone else.
Of course, besides the numerous in-jokes in the game, usually conveyed through voiceovers and billboard signs, there aren't any suggestions you have to commit violence. In fact, the objectives carried out in the missions are downright pedestrian at times. You have to cash a pay cheque. You have to get a Christmas tree. You have to buy a new toy called Krotchy (think the male anatomy). At one point, you even have to remind yourself to urinate on your father's grave. Certainly it is surprising considering this game is known for its graphic violence and tendency for mutilation and excess. I would have expected something more in the line of: how many people can you maim, left leg only, and then the right. But that's also part of its offbeat humor.
Like a dark comedy, it taps into sublime latent thoughts of our collective zeitgeist. For example, most tasks involve lining up to do things. You have to line up at a bank. You have to line up to buy milk. You have to line up to make a confession. In the everyday world (at least I would hope so), you'd wait diligently fuming to yourself - in Postal 2, you are given the freedom to point a gun at everyone until they all run away defecating themselves, or you can simply unleash your shovel on the objects of your frustration until you get your way.
Of course, a key component of Postal 2 is the ability to have fun with the premise. You can pick up a cat and attach its orifice (I'll let you figure out which one) to the end of your gun as a silencer. One of the first things I managed to do was take a gasoline can and light a dog on fire. Disturbing, yes, but I walked around, found a gasoline can and then found out you could use matches. Putting one and one together, that's what I came up with. Later I found that you could light a whole trail of gasoline on fire, so I proceeded to a busy block in Paradise, Arizona and simply lit some people on fire just for the heck of it. My crazed and confused victims proceeded to run around wailing and subsequently lighting everyone else on fire - including me.
Postal 2 continues the story of someone, for the lack of a better name, called The Postal Dude who works for, ironically, not the post office but actually Running With Scissors themselves. I'm guessing with the recent film Adaptation, it's becoming cool to feature the making of things into the actual thing you're making yourself. The missions take place over the course of a week. You figure out things you want to do for today and then you're unleashed on Paradise to do it however you want. Paradise, in comparison to Liberty City and its many suburbs, is tiny.
Many "acquisition" tasks involve a certain amount of money. Usually this is set so high that you'll find yourself barging in with (you guessed it) a shovel and taking it by force. Of course, you have the option to barge into other people's houses and stores and taking their money to pay for this one thing as well. Items, like health pick-ups, can be bought in the game, so there is a sense of a pervasive world happening besides your daily chores. Each task on your to do list, however, is not as simple as it might seem. You might have to return a library book, for example, only to find a bunch of protesters who want to burn down the library (ironically, to save trees). You might have to go to the bank, only to find yourself in the middle of a bank robbery. Early on, you're able to avoid trouble by running away like the other crazed constituents of Paradise do.
As the game progresses, you find yourself having to fight your way out of situations, and in the process of doing that, you'll earn the ire of the various groups in the city. The rednecks, for example, tend to congregate on the fringes of the city. If you bump into an enemy "faction" member, you can be sure they'll be chasing you down the street for what you did to them before. By the end of the game, like in Grand Theft Auto, pretty much every part of the city harbors someone who hates you.
There is law enforcement in the game though. The police, who do referee situations where you kill people, particularly fellow cops, are strangely dormant when enemies try to impale you. Yet they're highly sensitive when they see you impaling your enemies. But committing these acts incognito or staying out of sight until the "heat" wears off will usually get you off the hook.
Back to the missions themselves - they all run on the same formula.
You'll do something very mundane and then something dumb, depicted via an in-game cinematic movie, will happen to you, forcing you to resort to violence. It actually reminds me a lot of Joel Schumacher's film
Falling Down (ten years ago), with Michael Douglas being an 'ordinary' guy doing 'ordinary' things. However, he, like The Postal Dude, ends up unleashing mayhem because he's basically forced to in response to everyday harassment and banalities of "normal life". And the process just escalates as The Postal Dude continues his week.
This game mixes in a lot of satire. One of the first images you'll see when you start up the game is for "jihad goat milk". You know right from the beginning that this title is as much a political statement as it is a game. In the arcades, you'll find someone playing the game Fag Hunter (a colleague of mine astutely points out it's a spoof of SpyHunter). Some of it is genuinely funny, although in that dark comedy type of way. There's a point in the game where the protagonist has to go vote and you're presented the most confusing ballot ever created. Puns on hanging chads and 'intention to vote' dimples are included gratis. The library in Paradise also features pornography - which is not unusual. I was fully expecting that. Then I found a section of books on bomb making and terrorism right across from the pornography with a turban-wearing ethnic minority member. When you go to make a confession, a group of them raids the church by beginning with a "martyrdom" bombing. This is exactly the kind of material Running With Scissors does not shy away from.
On the flipside, there are equal parts of insipid humor in contrast to the material that works. The Gary Coleman cameo, for example, was hardly what I would call exciting. The hanging chads, in comparison, were much more exciting. Upon completing the game, you're also allowed to unlock different bonuses including weapons, items and even costumes for The Postal Dude.
While Postal 2 makes a solid transition to the 3D world, via the first-person shooter engine provided by Unreal, it is mired by some longer loading times. Much of Paradise is divided like Deus Ex. You have "tunnels" that serve as loading levels from one section of the city to another. Large sprawling indoor spaces, like the Paradise Mall and library, are levels in and of themselves. The trouble comes not because of the loading times but the sheer number of them. On any given task, you have to walk, since there are no vehicles, past three or four load zones before you get to the designated area. The mission design, moreover, is atrocious because it scatters these objectives all across town, which ostensibly implies a lot of meaningless foot traffic and load times. Certain areas of the city open up depending which mission you're on and you're allowed to revisit them, but you won't because of the travel (and loading) times. Where J.C. Denton got around by having Jock shuttle him in a helicopter, The Postal Dude should have been given a free monthly transit pass. At least if he takes the bus, that's one more suicide bombing incident the developers could use for mockery.
The artwork in this game is also less than top notch. The outdoor spaces look considerably better than the indoor ones, which like to repeat textures and tend to be elongated for the sake of providing more playing time.
This lack of polish extends to other parts of the game. Much of Postal
2 runs on one-time scripts that need triggering and in certain situations, where you'll do something unexpected (in fact, the game's premise almost encourages you to), you'll end up breaking the script or missing parts of the story because you did things out of order. Some parts of the game are also under-utilized by the developers. For example, how much "heat" you attract from the police is almost a joke because hiding in a building for a few minutes causes it to wear off.
It doesn't matter if you were found urinating in public or decapitating and subsequently kicking someone's head in a friendly game of soccer.
Both crimes get the same treatment from the police. Even in the graphic violence department, killing people can get utterly boring after awhile. I took a shovel to about twenty or thirty people in the beginning of the game and then found that the subsequent guns and rocket launchers did little to spark initial sense of twisted amusement.
In considering the whole corpus, though, Postal 2 is a rather unique product. In its banality, it actually touches on something of a higher level: specifically, the latent excesses of capitalistic societies. I was surprised when I read that Postal had a worldwide following but I don't see it reaching stardom in non-Westernized geographies like Asia or Latin America. Besides, there are plenty of games these days chock full of gratuitous violence to fill that void. I imagine it is difficult for people who are not in the know to actually appreciate where all this satire and comedy is coming from: the 9-5 doldrums, owning a minivan or SUV, paying your taxes, and painting the white picket fenced house in the suburbs while taking your kids to Little League games - the works.
On the other hand, there's no denying that parts of Postal 2 can be disturbing. If it gets as much press coverage ex post facto of its release, it will face some easily foreseen obstacles. The amount of development time focused on arson is probably a testament to that disturbing part. But Postal 2 isn't disturbing just because it wants to be disturbing. It's also out to make a statement, whether it's conscious of it or not, and it's that part that gives it some value beyond the mere technical mechanics. Given its pedigree, it's almost as much a political product as it is a game product. While it may not seem apparent to some, particularly the "politicians", there is merit to Postal 2 beyond just gross out excess, something akin to, dare I say, the art house indie flicks in the film industry. Controversial statements and taboo material - those are unequivocal 'yes'es for Postal 2, and Running With Scissors manages to throw in plenty of mindless fun with it as well.