Monday, 29 September 2014

Postal (PC)

Postal title screen
Not the prettiest title screen, but at least it's more cheerful than the music collection of sounds playing in the background when it comes up. I figured the game would be leaning more towards dumb comedy than grim psychological horror, but that shows what I know.

Hi, welcome to Super Adventures. I'm Ray Hardgrit and I know absolutely nothing about the first Postal game. I've played a lot of Postal 2 and I've heard that Postal 3 is so bad that developer Running With Scissors basically disowned it (in fact it's so bad that they added the game box into Postal 2 and you get an achievement for pissing on it), but the original Postal remains a mystery to me. I'll soon fix that though.

(Fair warning: there's a good chance I'm going to end up calling the game 'Portal' instead of 'Postal', and it likely won't just be once, so try not to be confused if you catch me screwing up.)

Oh, here's another warning for you: Postal™ is intended for "mature" audiences, due to the "serious business" nature of its "content". So expect bad things past this point.

It's a bit of a controversial game this one, and not just because it puts players in the position of a homicide lunatic carrying out acts of mass murder inspired by real life shooting incidents. In 1997 the United States Postal Service actually sued Running With Scissors over their use of the word 'postal' in the title. And lost.

I'm pretty sure this is the first game I've played for the site with separate volume sliders for 'pain' and 'suffering'. There's also a sound test mode here that lets you play back basically any sound from the game using the keyboard. I went and hit all of the keys in turn like an idiot and found out the hard way that they all play simultaneously and they go on forever. I'm only up to the audio options and I've already messed up!

I'd better start a new game quickly, before I fail at the control options screen too and end up with the mouse mapped backwards.

And the teeth from the title screen are back. You know, I almost feel like I've seen this art before in some graphic novel. It's as grim and weird as something Dave McKean would do.

Alright, so this is the closest thing I've got to a story then:
"10/17/97 The earth is hungry. Its heart throbs and demands cleansing. The earth is also thirsty."
Yep, that's the diary of a lunatic on his way to becoming serial killer alright, I've played DreamWeb so I know what they're like. There's no capitalisation on the word 'earth', so he's talking about the mud under his feet here, not global famine, and apparently the throbbing heart of soil can only be cleansed with a good meal and something to drink. This is something that he's been giving some real thought to for some reason.

Right then, objective 1: Buy fertiliser?


LEVEL 1: HOME.


Whoa, I was pretty sure this was going to be a 2D isometric kind of shooter, but I wasn't expecting a hand drawn background. It's like I'm going to be shooting up an illustrated kid's book.

That's me up there at the top by the house, using the mouse to spin around on the spot. The moving van makes me think he hasn't lived here long, but with all these police laying siege outside he might have actually stolen the thing to make a slow getaway. The bar on the top says Postal Dude has to kill 90% of hostiles, which apparently make up 84% of the town right now. Guess he's been pissing everyone off this evening.

So that's my situation then: Postal Dude is standing in his front yard, there's police about to storm the premises, and there's a spinning shotgun floating over on his top right. Whoa forget the siege for a second, I'm going around back to get my boomstick!

Any shots without the HUD top and bottom of the screen like this have been cropped and zoomed in for the sake of your eyes.
They moved in on me while I was in the back collecting my own property! I had no choice but to return fire in self defence, and that turned out to be trickier than you'd expect seeing as there's no crosshair for this thing. I've got infinite ammo and no reload animation for this rifle though, so I'm holding the trigger down and rotating on the spot until I see blood. Hopefully I'll get them both before they get behind the house, where I won't see much of anything.

Alright, the first 2 cops are down, leaving 18 to go. I'll grab that health pickup above me and see if I can do anything about the police gathering around my front gate now.

C'mon guys, couldn't you at least pretend to want to arrest me? I got just myself 20 precious hit points from that medi-crate and these guys are determined to take them all back from me, so I'm going to duck around the U-Move van on the left and see if I can sneak behind them.

Shit, there's a bloke with a rocket launcher there, on level one, literally right out of the gate! I tried firing back and got another rocket in the face, so I decided to run back behind the van so that I might live and take him on another day... and then got a third rocket in the ass.

Still, I've got 6 hit points left, so I'm still in the game. I just need to quit walking into explosions for a while until I find another one of those miraculous healing crates.

Aw crap, got clipped by a cop as I was running past. I had the sense to save my game earlier, but it only seems to store the level I'm on, not how far I am through it, so on my second run I'll be starting from square one again. Which to be fair is pretty much where I am anyway.

This time around I decided to hang around the front gate and lure the cops into my line of fire, but they're not being cooperative. Complete strangers are stepping over a corpse just so they can wander all over my lawn right in front of me, but the cops resolutely refuse to step into my cunning ambush.

Fine, I'm coming back out, but I'm not taking my finger off the trigger until everyone on screen is dead or dying. Oh that's something I should mention: enemies often crawl around for a bit yelling stuff out after I've taken them down, and I can either leave them to their suffering or use an execution move to put them out of their misery. Fun times in Postal Town.

Aha, didn't hit me that time did ya? Turns out that I have a duck key and if I time it right I can duck right under incoming rockets and let them sail harmlessly overhead. I'll have to pop back up to move or shoot (or both), but I should be able to duck down again before his next rocket's sent my way.

Oh right, seems that the other enemy types can still hit me while I'm ducked. Well now I know that!

At least they caught one of their own in the blast, who was hiding behind the building completely out of sight. Though I get the feeling he was probably a civilian. Not that the game cares much one way or the other what I do to innocent bystanders. As long as I take out enough of the folks trying to kill me, it's a win. It's like the opposite of Lemmings.

Plenty of people trying to set me on fire up on the north-east side of the level as well, though I see a couple of health kits and some shells as well. I'll try to steer Postal Dude in their direction while he's flailing around on fire and hopefully grab the health before he's entirely incinerated.

I'm getting a nice collection of shotgun shells now, as I've stopped trying to switch weapons in combat. A limited ammo, high damage weapon doesn't suit my 'spray bullets everywhere, eventually hit something' aiming technique anyway. The rifle's more than capable of killing any variety of goon... just takes a bit longer.

Alright fine, I'll give the last dude on the map the honour of being blasted with the shotgun. Even I can't miss 46 times in a row. Then I just have to wait for the wounded crawling around to finally give up the ghost and... huh, nothing's happened? What the fuck?

I've hit 100% casualties now and I'm still here, trapped in this tiny scrolling illustration of a town, trying to figure out where I screwed up. Did the game crash? Am I supposed to be finding an exit? Oh, OH, I've figured it out!

I hit the suicide button and Postal Dude spins his shotgun around and takes his own head off. Now we're at 100% casualties.

Well I got an achievement for it, but I still failed the level. I guess I'm checking a walkthrough then, because I have no idea what else the game wants me to do.


LEVEL 2: THE TRUCKSTOP.


Turns out that I just had to press 'F1' after hitting my quota to jump to the next stage. An on-screen message would've been nice! Oh, speaking of on screen messages I've gotten myself another achievement.

You utter bastards.

Actually it's cool that Running With Scissors can joke about stuff like this, but it would've been nice if they'd patched it maybe. It doesn't seem like the Steam version comes with a manual so it's not like I could've looked it up.

Anyway I'm on level two now and they've given me my full health back, so I don't see any reason not to save the game for later.

Oh shit, how am surviving this? Their aim must be worse than mine is. Half of them aren't even facing my direction!

Well I can confirm that the second stage is very much the same as the first stage, except with more things blowing up perhaps.

So many barrels! And when I shoot them they fly off and detonate more barrels! Joy!

This is also handy for taking enemies out at a distance, which is the safest way to play I reckon. In fact I try to kill them before they're even on screen if I can help it; spraying bullets into the emptiness ahead of me and listening out for screams. The starting rifle's got more range to it than you might expect.


LEVEL 4: PARADE OF DISASTERS.


I think I've figured out the level title! Hahaha, run you fools, your saxophones cannot save you now!

You know, besides Postal Guy's (very) occasional one-liners and the dumb things the wounded come out with sometimes, this is the closest the game's come to comedy so far. I was expecting a bit of Grand Theft Auto 3 style satire, maybe a couple of jokey shop signs and billboards, but it's not even on GTA 1's level. Most of the humour comes out of how cartoony and distant the slaughter in the game is. Tiny brainless low polygon dudes panicking because I interrupted their scripted parade with bullets is just funny.

B'wahahahahaha! Actually I feel kind of guilty now; the poor guys just wanted to bring a bit of joy into people's dull evening. They'd probably been practising that song for weeks, only for some psychopath to come and tear the whole thing down in seconds, and for what? I don't get any points for this, there's no benefit to me. It's just pure, senseless.... oh hang on a second, there's still a couple of them alive down there. COME BACK AND PUT YOURSELF IN FRONT OF MY BULLETS!

Check out that lighting by the way. If I stand next to a light source my whole character is lit up, even the side that should be in shadow.

Oh, NOW I can see myself walking behind trees? Funny how this didn't work earlier when I really could've used it. The trouble with foreground objects obscuring the playfield like this, is that they obscure the playfield! If an enemy wanders behind the trees then they basically disappear, which is even more annoying when I have to find and kill them to move on.


LEVEL 5: THE BRIDGE.


No such problems with this stage, because they've switched to top view! Would be nice if I could take that car for a drive, but I don't see it happening somehow.

Man, I can't believe I'm still taking damage from pistol goons like these guys. It's frustrating because with mouse and keys I should be able to dodge around their line of fire while holding my aim firmly in their direction, but the controls just aren't up to it. To strafe I have to hold down an extra key along with the turn left/turn right controls, and without a crosshair I'm aiming blind. It just seems unnecessarily awkward, as game developers should've known better by 1997. They've basically ripped off Wolfenstein 3D's controls for a game that came out a year after Quake.

Oh well, I had a good run, but they finally got me on the other side of the bridge. Nothing clever or flashy, just the steady erosion of my health due to a series of mistakes on my part. Still, it's my first failure since level one, and it gives me a good excuse to turn it off.

First though, I should mention that along with the regular single player mode I also found this challenge mode menu (though no multiplayer mode weirdly). It seems like I've got a choice between 'Gauntlet', 'Time', 'Goal', 'Flag', and 'Checkpoint' challenges, but only The Gauntlet wants to work so I'll go with that.

Right, I've got to get as many kills as possible in two minutes and I've got an inventory full of weapons to do it with. But I don't know what number key brings up what gun, as they've got nothing written next to them! Not that I can tell what they're meant to be with those icons anyway.

Okay there's a rifle, shotgun, another shotgun, grenades... oh a rocket launcher! That seems cool, I'll go with that.

Man I really should've learned by now not to play around with explosives in this game. And now I really am done playing it.


CONCLUSION

So that's Postal then: it's not really offensively bad, just offensive. Though on the other hand I'm not sure I'd ever want to play any more of it, as it's just too awkward for me to really enjoy. The description on Steam compares it to Robotron, but the problem with that is that Robotron has dual stick controls that let you steer in one direction as you're shooting in another, and Postal really doesn't. There's no reason at all that this couldn't have done the same thing, the developers just chose not to.

It's still kind of rare to find a game outside of the GTA series where you're unambiguously playing as the bad guy like this, but Hotline Miami jumps to mind as a game that pulls off a similar style of gameplay with far more grace and better controls, and without needing to rely on controversy to make up for mediocre content. Though on the other hand Hotline Miami doesn't have Postal Dude's voice actor, so neither game's perfect.

In conclusion: I can't really recommend the game, but you could get some fun out of it if you stick with long enough to get a handle on how it plays.

I love comments I do, so why not throw some feedback my way? Tell me what you think about my site or my writing, or tell the world what you think about Postal, either works. That comment box ain't no good to anyone until you put some words into it.

5 comments:

  1. It seems to me that a control scheme similar to that of Cannon Fodder or Syndicate -- left click to move, right-click to shoot -- would have been more sensible for this.

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    1. That'd work, but giving both tasks to the mouse cursor loses some precision. Abuse uses the keyboard to move and the mouse to aim the crosshair. It's a lot like Robotron and works very well - but wouldn't here, with no crosshair.

      Thanks for showing Postal's gameplay. I tried it in my tender teen years and recoiled in horror. Was playing this thing sickening in the least, or could you just focus on the manshoots?

      The thing is, I feel that video games could do much more with health systems. Just having people lie on the ground and moan that they can't breathe places Postal well above the industry standard, where hitting 0 health makes people fall over and drop their guns. So the game's repulsive, but I'd like to see more of this sort of thing.

      There are a few games with details. Cannon Fodder also has some people die slowly, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth occasionally makes players use a splint item or a suture item, Liberal Crime Squad (by the author of Dwarf Fortress of all people) proved faintly traumatizing when I didn't figure out how to heal wounded party members. Having more would be dark, unpleasant, worst of all easily unfun, but they'd also have possibilities. With the medium bursting with violence I kinda feel that we're due for exploring that. And a fantasy RPG wouldn't even have to get graphic to make it a plot point that people can get funny after a battle where cure spells keep them standing while they lose ten times their max HP and thirty liters of blood.

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    2. Yeah, I wish they'd either gone with Cannon Fodder controls and given players a crosshair, Abuse controls and given players proper strafe keys, or maybe even Chaos Engine controls and given players eight direction aiming and visible bullets.

      Honestly I didn't find the game sickening in the slightest, possibly because it's 17 years old now and looks it. All the horrible violence happens against tiny little low polygon lemming men, without the intelligence to even wander down the street convincingly, and when they got stuck yelling "has anyone seen my ear" on a loop even the comedy faded and I felt like mercy killing them to put them out of MY misery. The paper targets in a shooting gallery have more depth and realism to them, and I've done far worse to far more lifelike make-believe people much closer up in the last two decades, so I didn't find it a challenge to focus on the gameplay.

      If you want games where people die slowly, post-Gears of War co-op games have you covered, as an injured player is often left moaning on the floor waiting for the other one to find the time to come over and pick them up. Not exactly an exploration of the dark unpleasantness of bleeding out on the battlefield, kind of the opposite actually, but characters aren't just out at 0 HP at least. Also speaking of fantasy RPGs, Dragon Age Origins has characters accumulate stat sapping wounds from being KO'd, though it doesn't quite go as far as making you use a Metal Gear Solid 3-style survival viewer to bandage them up.

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  2. I enjoyed this game many years ago....

    Postal Dude isn't really a bad guy... He's just CRAAAAAAZZY. The game manual has further excerpts from his diary, in which he explains that everyone else in the town seems to be going mad, turning into murderous psychopaths.... He thinks it's something in the drinking water, and since he's the only sane person left, he must do something to stop whoever is poisoning the water... or some delusional thing like that.

    Also check out the (official) Santa Patch, which makes the game Christmas-themed. There will be reindeer-ostriches running around, and Santa throwing exploding gifts at you (hey, the guy's delusional, he probably sees all kinds of crazy things)... plus all new voice acting from the Postal Dude and Santa.

    Postal Dude: "Mom, I'm comin' home for Christmas!"
    Postal Dude: "How about a RED Christmas!"

    Santa: "I've got a present for you, Postal Boy!"
    Santa: "You killed Santa... you... Bastard!"
    Santa: "Now you'll never get that train set...."


    --Mr. Reaper

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  3. Yai, you reviewed Postal!! Thanks!! :D The REAL Postal, not those... things... that they call sequels.

    And turns out you've played Postal 2 but had no idea what Postal was like. Which is why in your review you seemed to were searching for humour or satire or funny moments. Well, Postal has nearly none of that. It's a really dark game about a scary madman, and has absolutely nothing in common with Postal 2 and its dumb ideas that were supposed to be "funny".

    If you were suprised about how serious Postal is compared to Postal 2, imagine my surprise when I started Postal 2 expecting a Lovecraftian tale of madness and horror, and instead found myself playing a rejected South Park. I still can't possibly imagine those games are by the same developers.

    Postal is not a good game. Clunky gameplay, no real objective, no compelling story, no good visuals (although the handdrawn backgrounds have a lot of charm and make the game even more surreal). But it'll always be a memorable game for me, because it had a lot of style. It really did feel like the videogame version of a horror novel, similar to "I have no mouth and I must scream".

    And then the devs made Postal 2 and I questioned their artistic talent.. perhaps they really just were making a game to be controversial, and all the artsy stuff came as an incident.

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