Most of the time, when you’re excited to be playing a video game, it’s because you expect to enjoy it. I don’t think either of us expected to enjoy Postal 3. How can you, when a game has review scores that peak at 3/10 on Metacritic?
“So, I was thinking… we treat it like a game design assignment.”
“A what?” Tim replies.
Tim, you see, works as a video game designer. He worked on L.A. Noire, and we often discuss video game design while avoiding work or drinking beers.
“Well, we take turns playing it, and treat it as a case study. We alternate between one of us playing, and the other making notes on the design flaws”
“Also, I’ll open a few bottles of wine.”
(I’m still convinced it was the last part that sold him more than the first two.)
This was intolerable! How could he expected to understand Postal 3‘s shortcomings if he didn’t have this all-important sense of perspective? So I loaded up a few videos of Postal 2 gameplay on YouTube. After a few minutes of questions including, “Why is he urinating on that dog?” I felt Tim had enough of a grasp on the important and noteworthy aspects of Postal 2 to continue onto its much-maligned and long-not-so-awaited-sequel.
With Tim edified, we began to load the game – and this was when the first curious thing happened. Now, Postal 3 is advertised as being a Running With Scissors production (RWS being the developers of the original Postal and its sequel), co-developed with Akella (a Russian studio).
Yet, we were presented with the glowing and prideful credit, “Developed by Trashmasters“.
Who the bleeding heck were they? Oh well. Just some other dev studio. Pay it no mind. On we go…
The game opened with a cartoon-style cut scene which was doctored to look like a Grindhouse film. Scratchy, torn, and with much of the colour removed, it purports to be an interview with the ‘Postal Guy’ in which he sums up his exploits from the previous game.
This is particularly important, as it shows that the designers knew that nobody actually finished Postal 2. Of course, it also shows that the designers made the mistake of assuming that people play Postal games for the plot. I’d not hesitate to theorise that an even number of people stopped playing because they were bored, because they found too many show-stopping bugs, or simply because they realised they weren’t 15 any more, and didn’t actually find the idea of setting fire to a marching band all that appealing.
So, with this long-winded intro sequence and an almost equally-long load screen later, we got into the game proper.
“Whoah! It’s third-person! Why on earth would they do that?”
I had no good answer to that… but I was about to get one.
The game indicated which key we should press to duck behind cover. Once there, we could blind-fire, hit the same key again to leap over the obstacle, or hold alternate fire to aim out from cover.
We realised pretty quickly what was going on.
“You don’t think…?”
“They’ve tried to clone Gears of War.”
Our hearts sank, and we topped up our glasses. There’s nothing wrong with Gears of War, of course. It’s an enjoyable game. But they seemed to have borrowed the worst elements of GoW, without noticing what it was that made us like the game in the first place.
[img_big]center,4457,2012-02-08/postal-3-concept-art-2.jpg,Surprisingly charming Postal 3 concept art[/img_big]
The tutorial level continued, taking us across the bridge which the military had been defending against the hordes of shuffling zombies (long story). After two failures and a few moans of “Why are we doing this, again?” we finally got to a rather bizarre impasse where the game simply told us to guard this room (at all costs) and whatever we do… not to push the red button.
The red button.
Sitting in the middle of the room. Smirking at us. Taunting us.
No, seriously – it did. The game interjecting the words “PUSH THE RED BUTTON” and variations over the gameplay proper.
And that’s how we ended up nuking an entire town… and laughing for the first of what would be be a very few times over the course of the game.
Whereas Postal 2 is a sort-of free-form game where you can ignore all the level ‘objectives’ if you’d like in favour of simply urinating on convenience store clerks or macing marching bands, Postal 3 is a linear (and we do mean LINEAR) series of mini-games where you have to do such things as:
Collect rabid cats from the street-side while being attacked by some kind of Asian gang
Retrieve stolen Segways from a gang of violent thugs
Escort the Mayor’s under-age (sort of), male sex slave from Thailand out the back of the Town Hall without being seen
Face off against an ever-increasing number of complicated bugs which stop you from completing levels (though we theorise that these were not intentional)
In between these levels, you are presented with topical-and-current scenes which feel like what would happen if some teenagers decided to make their own version of South Park, but didn’t have the talent to quite pull it off. Sure, some of them worked and got us chuckling… but those moments were few and far between.
“This is getting silly,” I said, staring at the huge list of design flaws we’d made, which included a list of disastrous physics bugs include one instance where we found a stripper and a terrorist being stuck inside of a door, together.
“Let’s try something different, then.”
“Let’s list all the things they’re doing right.”
“Yeah! That’s a good idea. Much less typing required for that.”
So we cleared our slate and stared blankly at both the game and the empty document for a while.
Finally, the awkward silence was broken.
“I’ve got it!”
“You can skip cut scenes!”
“Ooh. That’s true. That’s still not true of every game.”
We added it to our zero-item list.
“Well, it hasn’t technically crashed so far.”
“Also true. Anything else?”
Another awkward silence.
“You can… you can urinate on zombies?”
After a long pause.
“How much wine have we had?”
We continued to play for a further two hours. In the end, we finally gave up, but not until after we’d endured a completely broken level which took us back-tracking and wracking our brains for 36 minutes before we could figure out what kind of bizarre scripting error had happened to stop us from being able to proceed further.
We thought this was bad enough, but it was shortly after this point that we encountered something so amazing that we decided to re-start the level just to make sure our eyes didn’t deceive us.
Sure enough, they weren’t lying.
One of the ‘cut scenes’ was a 10 second long block of text which read, simply: “Cut scene in progress“.
Amazed and awed, we decided to save ourselves further pain and simply watch the end of the game on YouTube. Fortunately, some kind-but-masochistic soul had put an entire playthrough up, allowing us to see what we missed by giving up on the game after only four hours.
It turns out, what we’d missed was only a further two hours. The total length of this game is terrifyingly short.
[img_big]center,4457,2012-02-08/postal-3-concept-art-6.jpg,More Postal 3 concept art[/img_big]
Possibly the worst part of Postal 3 is that there are so many things that should have been fun. It’s a game which contains lines of voice-over such as:
“Al was really proud of his African bee hybrids. He showed me how to lob them at Terrorists.”
“Go, little 40-year-old slave boy! Be free!”
It’s the kind of game which is self-aware enough have the main character annoyedly note: “Right. Postal has vehicles now? Very funny, assholes” on encountering a driving level… and yet is also quite happy to smear the very game it borrows its gameplay style from (Gears of War) with the in-game parody “Gear Whore”.
As the end credits rolled, we drank more wine and read through them carefully.
“Wow. This Russian company, Trashmasters, really did do all the development on this game. It looks like RWS more or less just did the cut scenes.”
“So what the hell did Akella do?”
“Fronted up the cash, maybe? But why?”
The credits were actually quite entertaining to read.
They included such credits as a special thanks section in which an RWS employee thanks “Running With Scissors… for not sending me to Russia”… and someone being credited with multiplayer design… in a game with no multiplayer.
A bit drunk and slightly dejected after the experience of reading the credits, we decided to Google this company, to see what else they’d done.
Not a single credit was listed. In fact, at the time we couldn’t even find an official Trashmasters web site – but we did find something surprising… a making-of documentary.
And I do mean documentary. It’s 70 minutes long on youtube, and entirely in Russian.
So, as we’d had a bit and had figured ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ we watched some of it, and discovered the lead game designer (who is credited using a mononym and who appears in a balaclava with a voice modifier) talking at length about something which sounded very intriguing. Unfortunately, given neither of spoke Russian, we decided to call it a day.
However, not to be outdone, I decided to satisfy my curiosity a bit more. I rang up a Russian friend of mine and asked him to watch some of it with me, to translate.
I just had to know what goes into making a game so bad that someone would say of it, “Trying to attribute this to a company which makes games – professionally – is just embarrassing. REALLY embarrassing.”
Days later, I was sitting there, watching a few minutes, pausing, and hearing a summary of what the developers were saying.
“I think they know it’s a bit shit,” my mate explained. “The lead designer seems to have his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, so to speak.”
“Postal is huge in Russia,” my mate translated. “Really huge. Like, Postal 2 sold $2M worth, and that’s pretty big for a country where piracy is so damn rife.”
“Was that said in jest?” I asked.
“No, no. He’s dead serious,” my mate replied.
In a way, then, it makes sense that Russians would be the ones to cheaply continue a series which is largely derided (but secretly enjoyed) by so many in the West.
We did eventually find the Trashmasters official web site. No English translation was available outside of the spotty work of Google Translate, but it’s still easy enough to go through their back-catalogue. Far from being the hastily-cobbled-together team we’d somehow assumed, they have over a decade of history – and I’d even played one of their games before (Age of Sail II).
But whatever else they are, their web site seems to have the same dry sense of humour that their making-of documentary did.
So, thinking back on Postal 3…
Is it a bad game?
Is it the worst game ever made?
Probably not. I’m not even entirely sure it deserves some of the scores it gets.
So, in the end, while all Tim and I got for our time with Postal 3 was three fewer bottles of wine than when we started, and a hangover… I’ll at least give it this: it made me think carefully about how subjective “bad” humour becomes when your primary market is in a country whose primary language isn’t the main one featured in the game…
…and that whatever went on when making the game was scary enough that one of the American developers was crossing his fingers, hoping he wouldn’t be sent to Moscow.
Note: In case you’re looking for this one in stores, Postal 3 has not been rated by the Australian Classification Board, and Running With Scissors reportedly has no desire for it to be submitted, let alone given a rating.