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GamingOnLinux Reviews - Postal: Classic and Uncut

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Game Information:
Name: Postal: Classic and Uncut
Released: August 29, 2003
Developer: Running With Scissors
Rating: 7/10

Hardware Specifications:
Processor: AMD Sempron 140 2.7 Ghz
Video Card: Diamond AMD Radeon HD 4670
Memory: 4 Gigabytes DDR2 1066
Hard Drive: 2 TB Western Digital Caviar Green

System Specifications:
Distribution: Fedora 16
Kernel: Linux 3.6.2
Graphics Driver: R600 Gallium3D Driver
Desktop Environment: Xfce with compositing

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I am sure that my first experience with the original Postal was very much the same as it was for many of the other people who have decided to give it a go over the years. Having by that point been finally convinced to play and thoroughly enjoy the game's much more infamous and elaborate sequel, I curiously endeavoured to play the game that came before it wondering just where such a messed up if creative worldview could have possibly arisen from. The fact that the original game often comes packaged alongside it's sequel has probably greatly contributed to it's longevity because it has allowed those of us, such as myself, that were at best only vaguely curious to try it out a very easy and accessible way to try it without the need to strain ourselves too hard for the privilege.

Ignoring a couple of technical quibbles which I shall divulge in greater detail for you later on, my first experience with Postal went something like this. Having got the game installed, I started the first level and was immediately greeted with a dingy if yet still strangely colourful world of dreary snowpacks and rundown buildings. Fully aware that the game first came out in 1997, I managed not to get too off put by the fact that the game uses the arrow keys rather than the standard WASD configuration that we have all now gotten so utterly used to these days; must be one of the benefits of growing up always playing games years after their original release dates I guess. What was slightly more off putting however was the fashion in which my on screen avatar did decide to move after responding to some of my key commands.

The game proudly proclaims in one of it's descriptions that the gameplay is highly inspired by the old Robotron: 2084 (1982) arcade game, and while I was prescient enough to expect a certain amount of nineties gameplay conventions, the recreation of the 3/4 isometric projection of an old eighties arcade machine did take some getting used to. Still, moving beyond that little bit of conciseness raising, I was still fairly quickly able to start committing the sordid array of violent acts that the game would become notorious for; at least until the sequel came out and overshadowed some of the original's more gleeful bloodshed. That being said, the game's over the top screaming and pleading for mercy was enough to immediately draw me in and help me forget some my original fumbling about with the controls.

In almost no time at all I had cleared the level of almost every living thing on the map, and while I appreciated the fact that I was given the opportunity to survey my carnage in a fairly considered retrospective fashion, it soon became immediately obvious that I had absolutely no idea how to carry on from this point. I just continued running around the disconsolate little hellhole that was being depicted desperately searching for something that I might have missed and that would allow me to proceed to the next area. A good deal later on I would find out that I was not the only one to get stuck on this particular little hurdle; it turns out the developers were expecting you to figure out that you had to press the wonderfully discoverable “F1” key after completing your assigned objective in order to proceed to the next area.

Now, to be fair, they do comment on this in an included if rather facetious instruction guide bundled with the game's data, stating in large bold red letters that this little piece of information is, in fact, the most important thing you need to know in order to play the game. Again, this file is another throwback to a time when people were supposed to buy a game from a store and have a nicely illustrated instruction manual to read from. As it stands though, I would not blame anyone for missing it, especially if you like me are now playing it from the Desura release, where it is again rather unintuitively hidden out of sight and is not even selectable from the Desura launch screen. To quote the Postal Dude from the next game, “I'm sure that sounded intuitive in the design docs!”

Going back to an earlier point, the game's technology has also not aged all that well either. When first launching the game I discovered that it is stuck permanently at a 640x480 resolution and that it offers no apparent means to change the screen or window settings, which I found to be quite aggravating. Granted, that was partly due to it feeding into an already present frustration with my version of Xfce brought on by the fact that my desktop icons will lose their position upon screen resolution changes, but it also unfortunately causes the game not to scale as well on higher resolution displays. Which is a shame really, since the art assets are one of the things the game really has going for it. I also could not help but notice that the game does indeed support being windowed, but only if one presses “Alt-Enter”. This option is not made available in any of the game menus.

At this point one might be thinking that I did not enjoy the game. The truth is I did: it is quirky, dark, funny, and even strangely compelling at times. However, to be able to truly appreciate the game one must enter it with the knowledge that they are about to play a flawed masterpiece; without that knowledge one might be tempted to berate Postal unfairly and give a disservice to a surprisingly inventive and even deep game. Now that I have listed those flaws, I can now in good conscience give the praise that most of the rest of the game rightly deserves. For instance, while I have fully admitted that the game's controls are a little hard to wrap your head around, they do provide for a rather anxious gameplay experience, as you are never really that sure where you are aiming and who is behind you. It helps add to the game's dark ambience.

In fact, almost everything about the game comes together extraordinarily well in this regard. The music direction is great, with an often absent if still haunting or driving soundtrack that shows up only when it is most necessary. However, the game for the most part relies on it's sound effects to set a mood, with a wide range of screams, blasts, threats, and taunts permeating the often elaborate surroundings that the game relishes putting the player in. The screams in particular are grotesquely violent and yet still so obviously over the top that one does not know whether to laugh or be very disturbed. It is in this grey area that the game excels, making one never sure if the game is mocking death or celebrating it. It is clearly humorous parody, and yet at the same time it is also just so damn creepy.

Credit must also go to the great casting of Rick Hunter, someone who can easily stand alongside other great luminaries such as Jon St. John and Stephan Weyte when it comes to providing kick ass voicing to some of our favourite action game protagonists. While his true talents were arguably not fully utilized until the sequel, the almost incongruous quips he inserts into the game are still a very much appreciated addition, managing to inject even more personality into a game that is already seething with attitude. Not that any of the other casting can really be faulted either, especially since it becomes quickly obvious upon a casual glance of the game's credits that most of these voices were in fact provided by the rest of the Running with Scissors staff themselves, as well as their family and friends.

The other aspect, other than the screams, that everyone tends to remember about the game are the legitimately creepy diary entries that are displayed at the beginning of each level. From the opening line informing the player that “the earth is hungry” to the somewhat notorious refrain “blessed are the meek for they make easy targets”, these grant the player a unique window into the Postal Dude's mind and offer up some of the few legitimate plot points revealed from the game's often cagey story. Credit for most of these goes to the late Bill Kunkel, the infamous Game Doctor and sometimes dubbed grandfather of video game journalism, who injects much of his famous wit, humour, and satire into many of these dark epitaphs. Also slipped in for good effect at the end of the credits was the warning that “copyright infringement will be punishable by death in any country accessible by air travel”, a nice addition that makes me glad that I did in fact pay the small penance required to legally purchase the game.

The game's history also turns out to be rather amusing. RWS started out as Riedel Software Productions, a studio best know for franchise derived educational games such as Spy vs Spy (1984), Sesame Street Countdown (1992) and Tom and Jerry (1993) After years of building licensed games for children, something snapped in the minds of the developers, and a new game franchise and a new radically different development studio was born. The idea was to build something that was completely distinct from anything else that they had made before; what surfaced was a completely original IP with a setting that definitely would not make it into any educational game. The story of an average person opening fire on often innocent and unsuspecting bystanders fit the bill, and turned RWS from being viewed as kid friendly developer darlings to startling digital renegades.

Returning to the subject of the plot, as I previously mentioned, the game never seems to want to give you too many details. The presence of a removal truck and a cop car parked outside the Postal Dude's home do seem to suggest that he is being evicted, and this is the generally accepted back story to the game, but it is never fully elaborated upon inside Postal itself. One of the expansion levels does have the Dude incredulously ask why the shopping centre he is in does not stock Postal before opening fire, planting the idea of on screen revenge that would later become more fully explored in the game's sequel, but this still does not qualify as a proper reason to explain away his actions. I almost get reminded of Japanese anime director Hideaki Anno's own insistence on vagueness when it comes to his famous creations, as both his works and Postal share similar caginess in terms of plot, leaving plenty of hints but not many explanations.

Despite this, the game does have a legitimately intriguing ending with a strange twist that actually offers some quite involved final reflections. Regardless, just the simple premise of a man gone mad is often more than enough to justify the actions taking place on screen; and an oddly colourful view that screen becomes. Pimped as featuring “beautifully hand-painted background graphics”, the game presents the player with a truly unique art style which manages to successfully achieve the interesting contradiction of bright colours while at the same time showing off some truly dingy environments. The game's background paintings do indeed showcase the work of talented artists trying to create the less than beautiful, and it is in many ways a shame that the gameplay itself demands such a high level of direct attention, as the amounts of little details available in each and every level is truly outstanding.
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