Released in 1997, the ultraviolent Postal almost immediately became a lightning rod for controversy. Senator Joe Lieberman decried it in Congress, it was banned in several countries, and developer Running With Scissors has been sued by the US Postal Service. Postal 2 continues the tradition of calculated offensive content, but this time faces a challenge much greater than angry politicians, antsy retailers, or the Postal Service. The enormous success of Grand Theft Auto III--which covers much of the same antisocial ground, only with more style, wit, and overall technical competence, as well as better gameplay--makes Postal 2 irrelevant right out of the gate. Essentially, Postal 2 strings together a bunch of violent novelties without ever constructing a compelling game for them to support.
Taking a cue from the Grand Theft Auto series, Postal 2 plays out in a large clockwork city that you're free to explore while pursuing a string of missions. The missions are segmented across a period of five days. You must complete certain goals each day in order to advance to the next time period. These goals take the form of commonplace errands such as going to the bank, buying milk, getting your gonorrhea treated, or delivering a gift to your uncle. Following the recent trend of paid public humiliation as a sort of retirement fund for celebrities, one of your errands is to acquire an autograph from former child star Gary Coleman, who is played by the actual Gary Coleman.
These goals form the basis of the game's one truly funny idea: Postal 2 can be completed without ever resorting to violence. For instance, if you need to cash a check, you can either wait in line for five minutes or cut to the front by decapitating all the other customers with a shovel. Violence will sometimes erupt around you, but you always have the option of running away--though this option becomes significantly less viable in the second half of the game.
Unfortunately, this starting concept is about as clever as the game gets. There's a joke around every corner, but with a few exceptions--such as an anti-book protester carrying a sign that reads "Hitler Wrote a Book!"--they all fall flat. However, some people will at least be impressed by the game's sheer number of groin- and butt-inspired puns.
Postal 2's gameplay never manages to do any better than the game's clever initial concept, either. Though you can explore the rest of the city between missions, there isn't much reason to do so. The entire single-player game can be finished in about 10 hours. Once you've finished that (and have possibly conducted a few murderous rampages to see what they're like), you'll probably be done with the game. Unlike Grand Theft Auto III, Postal 2 has no cars to drive, though decorative cars are scattered around the city and create fairly large explosions when destroyed, much like the exploding barrels found in other first-person shooters. This should be a lesson for future clockwork city game designers: Urban mayhem is much less satisfying without vehicles you can drive.
The nonviolent solutions to Postal 2's mission goals aren't in any way interesting, and the combat is much too sloppy to be engaging. Fighting generally involves running up to an enemy and discharging your weapon as close to his or her face as possible. According to the game's documentation, Postal 2 supports a locational damage system, but it's spotty at best. A bullet to the head rarely appears to do more damage than a shot to the leg. Your computer-controlled enemies don't exhibit much grace under fire--they'll generally shoot at you from a fixed position or run right for you, though they'll occasionally flee in terror (and while fleeing, they'll periodically peer back over their shoulders, which is a nice little detail). Otherwise, most of Postal 2's combat seems like it could have come straight out of a run-of-the-mill shooter from five years ago.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto III's virtually seamless environment, Postal 2's city is segmented into small chunks, each requiring 30 seconds to a full minute to load. The load time really cuts into whatever other enjoyment Postal 2 might have otherwise provided. Since you have the run of the city, you'll often cross these transitions six or seven (or more) times while on an errand. It's not uncommon to have to sit through a 40-second load time, walk 10 feet, and then be stuck with a 30-second load time. Not only does this constant loading take you out of the game, but it also discourages you from doing any kind of exploration that isn't immediately relevant to your current mission.
Postal 2's graphics are powered by the latest version of the Unreal engine, and the exterior areas look good. However, the game's interior areas seem as if they weren't completely finished. The insides of buildings feature lots of empty space, little decoration, simple geometry, and ugly, repetitive textures. Against the trend set by other recent games, the gore in Postal 2 is surprisingly subdued. You can decapitate people, but, for better or worse, there's nothing that compares to Soldier of Fortune 2's level of graphic gore.
We live in a world in which the extremely violent Grand Theft Auto III not only succeeded on its own terms, but also become an accepted part of the pop-culture landscape. It's clear that Postal 2's developers attempted to make an outrageous game to get everyone's attention, but these days, even a game like this requires great gameplay to accompany its naked bid for infamy, something the game's designers seem to have failed to realize.