Part 4 of our history of PC Zone, and we’re into 1998: past the peak of the 90s, but still, to my mind, a vaguely optimistic time. Okay, so Britpop was dead and Be Here Now was rubbish, but we still lived in hope that England might win the World Cup and The Phantom Menace might be quite good. This was also the time when I bought PC Zone most regularly: around the time of the redesign, the cover price was slashed by a whole £2 to £2.99, which was possibly a factor (whatever horrifying and potentially unethical changes to working conditions enabled this switch were of no concern to me).

Part 4: 1998-99 – Sick Notes

zone 67 cover

While Zone’s look had evolved over the years, 1998 seemed like the first time it had undergone such a thorough redesign, with the iconic corner logo being replaced by a fairly generic-looking A-Team style stencil effort. For the first time since the very early years, there was a Meet The Team feature, in which the various writers were asked the same question (usually related to a cover game or feature) as well as declaring which games were on their hard drive. What’s On Your Hard Drive? was also another new regular feature, in which the inhabitants of a particular town or city were quizzed about their current gaming habits.

Even though the accompanying pictures often indicated that the feature had involved little more than hanging around the local branch of GAME or Electronics Boutique, I took it as a sign that games were becoming less of a niche hobby and more of a thing that the person in the street might indulge in. Like it or not, the popularity of the PlayStation probably had something to do with it, and perhaps in acknowledgement of this, Zone briefly ran a feature, PlayStation Zone (later Console Zone) which covered the latest developments in the world of the small grey box, including coverage of the PSX emulator Bleem! (eventually shut down by Sony). For a short while, the What’s On Your Hard Drive feature was also accompanied by a feature about the state of games in the same town/city, usually involving an interview of some kind with the managers of local gaming stores.

Zone 78 Hard Drive

Adam Phillips joined the Zone team to head up the Watchdog section, looking into readers’ issues with suppliers of hardware and software. Also new was Feedback, a kind of proto comments section, inviting readers to write in and air their views on the games Zone had reviewed. Early editions of this section were published with no reply from the editorial staff, although this was soon rectified so that the magazine could at least be seen to have taken note of reader feedback (even if they largely dismissed it). Phil Wand (later to replace Warren Chrismas as the technical expert, as Dear Wazza became Dear Wandy) also made his first appearance, helming the Extended Play section, which looked at fan-made levels, patches and editors, many of which were included on the cover CD.

Zone 75 Meet The Team

We’ve already mentioned Sick Notes, Charlie Brooker’s combative letters page, which was the source of some genuine amusement. Picking off the worst of the correspondence received by a magazine was arguably low-hanging fruit, but boy was it funny:

[Following a complaint about the CD cover disc] “You think you can deny any responsibility if your product causes problems? Next we’ll have Kellogg’s selling arsenic-laced cornflakes and saying it’s now’t to do with them when people start spewing their rings over their kitchen worktop.”

CB: “If Kellogg’s did start selling aresenic-laced cornflakes, it would be a deliberate act of premeditated mass murder, bound to cause pain and suffering on an apocalyptic scale. This is hardly on a par with distributing a Panzer Commander demo featuring no ‘gun, crash or impact sounds'” (Zone 67, September 1998).

“okay GAY BOY…you want a game idea, you got one. Hows this: Have a game in which Mr Brooker (gay boy) is showing his (hairy ass)…(by the way I am not gay) and some one comes with a WHIPING stICK and Whips!!! Mr brooker’s ass with it soo hard that Mr brooker begs for mercy…Also, there’ll be missions like where Mr. Brooker gets married but due to not enough satisfaction from him, his wife leaves him and Mr, brooker decides to join the gay club where every gay beats the shit out of him (If you’re thinking why Mr. Brooker gets beats well then thats because he’s an insult to the gay community therefore they rather wouldn’t have him)” (Zone 69, November 1998).

“Here’s a great idea for a game. You start off In a DIY store. You have to kill the shop assistant and manager with the tools on the wall. When you get a certain amount of points you move onto a different shop, like Dixons or something, and you have to kill the assistant with computers, stereos and so on.”

CB: “Clearly [this correspondent] has a bit of a thing about shops. Four days after we received this email, he sent another one outlining the murder of shop assistants, this time with a final level in which ‘you kill the owner of an extremely expensive clothes store’” (Zone 72, January 1999).

“I would like to see someone else that I could kill in games. The main people that we get to kill are Germans, Russians and aliens…I think that it is now time we got to kill some Italians, Frogs or Norwegians for a change. Most of all, I would like to kill some Yanks, but as they produce most of the games, I suppose it is out of the question” (Zone 70, December 1998).

“I have an excellent way to weed out and kill the stupid [outlines extremely uninteresting, deeply violent plan]…then we could spend the rest of our lives thinking up new and inventive ways of killing them. Plain shooting would be boringly stupid, and we’d have to kill anyone who suggested that” (Zone 75, April 1999).

“What the f*** are you saying about Marilyn Manson? They are great band, as are Iron Maiden…I love Marilyn Manson, Iron Maiden and PC Zone. I can’t be that wrong, can I?”

CB: “Do you want to tell him, or shall I?” (Zone 76, May 1999).

Obviously, it was only a matter of time before someone sent a genuinely coherent letter of insult in reply, and when it arrived it was published in Zone 79, in the final edition of Sick Notes:

“Brooker, you are obviously under the illusion that your letters page is the most hilarious piece of literature since the script for the last series of The Fast Show (or whatever drivel you find amusing), and that you are something of a cartoonist and gaming ‘vigilante’. Firstly, your cartoons all look exactly the same. It’s like you have three figures which you can draw: a bloke, a bird and a dog. They all look pretty much the same as the bloke, and none of them are well-drawn in any case. You, my friend, are a failed cartoonist at best. Why don’t you create a truly hilarious cartoon series about a bitter, pig-faced little shit who thinks he’s really cool, funny and clever because he regularly insults and offend people via his pathetic letters page in a (otherwise decent) magazine. At the end of every episode, you could have him scurrying home to have a wank over his Buffy The Vampire Slayer desktop theme, eat a mayonnaise sandwich, and have a damned good cry at what a truly pitiful existence he lives.”

CB: “Fortunately, Sick Notes as a whole is hardly representative of my true character. It’s all a facade. Enough of this faux thuggishness; in reality I’m a quiet, bookish type who spends his time listening to Radio Four and doing the weeding…Since its inception, [Sick Notes] has become increasingly pointless with each passing month, the majority of letters consisting of witless ramblings and illiterate threats…Next month we unveil Love Notes, in which you are invited to post us your descriptions of your happiest gaming moment, ‘don’t kids say the darnedest things’ stories, and photographs of family pets.”

Zone 79 Sick Notes

Over the next couple of months Zone published letters of support for Sick Notes in the main letters section, but by this point Brooker had unwittingly embroiled himself in yet another controversy with his lukewarm review of the action-adventure Outcast: “A technically dazzling and potentially awe-inspiring piece of code has been crushed beneath a tedious narrative, bloated by wilfully obscure dialogue, lumbered with an uninvolving combat system, and ultimately drowned in its own delusions of grandeur.”

Brooker was surprised by the backlash: “I was accused of everything from ‘journalistic sloth’ to, well, things I can’t repeat in this small space without drawing an explicit diagram for reference purposes. However…I stand by every word I wrote. Sorry. I just found it boring and disappointing, a wasted opportunity: it actually annoyed me, and the style of the piece reflected that. To those who were offended, hey, at the end of the days it’s only my opinion – there’s no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ about it. I also hate country and western music, baked beans and Casualty. You might love all those things.”

Another regular feature around this time was Hotline, a calendar of upcoming releases and gaming events, presented by Paul ‘Mr Biffo’ Rose, of Digitiser fame, who made semi-regular appearances in Zone for a short period around this time. One memorable contribution was during an appraisal of the merits of third-person action-adventure based on The Fifth Element, when he attempted to provide balance to an observation that protagonist Leeloo had smaller breasts than Lara Croft by stating that Croc (of long-forgotten Croc: Legend of the Gobbos) “probably has a bigger willy than Bruce Willis. But that’s just a guess.”

The PC Zone Supertest also made its debut post-redesign, although it its earliest incarnation it was simply the work of one person, suitably au-fait with the genre, sitting down and reassessing all the relevant titles and declaring a winner. The first proper Supertest took place in Zone 74, with a round-up of the best first person shooters, and messrs Brooker and Hill having to answer for their extremely generous appraisals of, respectively, Unreal and Klingon Honor Guard (“Hill: You are a Klingon. Some people actually like that. Brooker: I didn’t. And I don’t like you either, Steve. You’re a complete twat.”) As the feature evolved, the accompanying opening picture became more elaborate: instead of just a picture of a load of men in a pub arguing (as was initially the case) there was more of an attempt to tie the picture in with the games under consideration, although during this period it hadn’t quite escalated to playing dress-up (more on which later, in Part 5).

Zone 74 Supertest

A look back at the football management Supertest revealed the surprising fact that long-term Championship/Football Manager stalwart and reviewer Steve Hill wasn’t actually a fan around the time of CM3‘s release, inexplicably preferring Gremlin’s Premier Manager 99. He came around eventually, and in his role as world-weary sports game correspondent, Hill was forced to put each and every one of CM’s inferior rivals through their paces, with their reviews basically amounting to little more than a list of fairly basic things they did wrong.

Jeremy Wells remained editor during the early editions of the redesign, although Mark Higham served as Editor-in-Chief and wrote the brief editor’s note at the start of each issue. I’m afraid I’m not entirely sure of the difference between an Editor and an Editor-in-Chief, even after moderate internet research, but Higham continued to appear for a while even after Chris Anderson took over (in Zone 72). It was my recollection that this period coincided with a general toning-down of the more laddish elements of the magazine, and indeed this was acknowledged in a response to a couple of letters in Zone 79: “In general we have toned down the swearing a lot because some people have been offended by it. This does not mean that we have toned down the editorial stlye of the magazine…it’s just those little words that will not be appearing as regularly as normal. Come on guys, you can live with it.”

Zone 70 Mallo

To a certain extent, this was true. The picture of Charlie Brooker attempting to eat his own arse (Zone 74) was potentially more disturbing than any foul language. The sight of Brooker’s nude cheeks, and indeed of the equally traumatising picture of Paul Mallinson on the toilet (as part of a feature on gaming at work in Zone 70) did little to balance out the continuing attempts on the part of games publishers to titillate. Perhaps buoyed by the success of Eidos using a real-life model (by this time, Yorkshire-born Nell McAndrew, promoting Tomb Raider 3) Activision tried something similar with their (much less recognisable) ‘sexy’ antagonist from FPS SiN, Elexis Sinclaire. Meanwhile, the advert for Shogo: Mobile Armour Division (of which Zone reviewer Richie Shoemaker said “Apart from Half-Life, Shogo is the best game I’ve played this year”) used a double page spread to display a picture of a large gun, a model, and the winning slogan: “It’s not the size of your weapon that counts…it’s where you stick it!”) Honestly, there’s enough material for a separate feature on awful game ads of the 90s.

Shogo Ad

One piece that time hasn’t been kind to is David McCandless’s guide to getting your girlfriend into games (Zone 76). Zone’s previous attempt at a Girls in Games feature had produced an eloquent rebuke from a female reader (Zone 68) who said she was insulted by the whole thing. Despite the article itself advising readers not to patronise their girlfriends, the tone of the piece couldn’t help but do just that. In fairness, there was a slightly self-deprecating tone to the piece, basically along the lines that women had better things to do than play games (which was certainly my experience in the late 90s: my girlfriend at the time thought that games were unbearably nerdy) but still, the assumption that all readers were male and no girls liked games wasn’t likely to go down well with Zone’s female readers (a letter in Zone 78 said as much: “Perhaps you should write an article called How to Get Computer Magazine Writers To Employ Female Workers And Reduce The Sexism And Patronising”).

Another regular feature was to ask each and every developer interviewed for a preview feature whether they’d ever been in a real fight. If this was an attempt to maintain some of the edgy content of Zone’s past (‘faux-thuggishness’, as Brooker might have it) then it was certainly undermined by the nature of the majority of the responses, most of which were either “No” or “No, not since school.” The only, slightly disturbing outlier was a charming fellow who worked on FIFA 99: “Me and the lads were out on the lash and started picking at this guy at the bar – throwing peanuts, verbal abuse, the usual. Anyway, as we were leaving, I went up to him and said sorry and bought him a pint, and he just smacked it on the floor. I couldn’t believe it! So I headbutted him and told him not to be so bloody rude. He had to go to the hospital and had 18 stiches.” But, in case you were wondering: as of the year 1999, neither Will Wright or Ken Levine had been in a real fight.

Anderson’s Zone was keener to push the ‘verdicts you can trust’ angle but there were some dodgy ones in the months that followed. I’ll personally never quite forgive a reviewer called Craig Vaughan for conferring upon EA’s dreadful, unfinished Cricket World Cup ’99 a score of 80% and a PC Zone recommended award. Other slightly iffy scores awarded in the preceding months included Steve Hill’s 90% for Sensible Soccer: European Club Champions, and Brooker’s overenthusiastic reviews of Carmageddon 2 and Wargasm. A couple of issues later (Zone 75) there was mention of a revised Buyer’s Guide which would clear out the older games and identify a benchmark title for each genre against which other games would be scored. It took some time to implement though – it wasn’t seen in the mag itself until Zone 85.

Loose Cannon

There was much discussion and coverage of the trouble at Ion Storm and the subsequent delays to Daikatana (Steve Hill went to preview the game in late 1999: “Atop the Ion Storm skyscraper, the cream of the UK gaming press is assembled for a final look at the heavily delayed Daikatana prior to its pending release. Or so we were told…The long and the short of it is that Daikatana was nowhere near finished, and we might as well have gone to Blackpool.”) although there were three other games prominently mentioned during this period that never saw release: Loose Cannon, which looked like a sort of open-world cop adventure from Tony Zurovec (he of Origin and Crusader: No Remorse fame); a cops-and-robbers racer, Felony Pursuit; and a squad-based X-COM shooter called X-COM: Alliance. All of them quietly disappeared.

Zone 86 Shape

The Zone Millennium Edition (Zone 86) was, like the event itself, a bit of a damp squib (I drank non-alcoholic Eiswein and watched next door’s fireworks). An impressive array of writers was gathered to do a special Supertest to find the Game of the Millennium (it was Half-Life, with System Shock 2 in second place). Charlie Brooker wasn’t among them, although he did contribute a feature called The Shape of Things to Come, in which he made a number of seemingly outlandish predictions about the future of gaming, two of which (2007: Bug-Fix Patch Wins Full-Price Release and 2018: Polygon Count “Beyond Calculation”) seem to already have come true. Brooker wasn’t to hang around for much longer, though, as Zone entered the year 2000, and was soon headed for bigger and better things.

Quotes:

“Macca: I disliked it.

Mallo: I lent you my copy of the PlayStation version and you’ve still bloody got it!

Macca: Ah, yeah. But I didn’t like it.”

The RPG Supertest discussion turns to Final Fantasy VII (Zone 77, June 1999)

“I am still allowed to look at all the porn on the internet, aren’t I?”

Jon Hare gets into the spirit of Zone’s Desert Island CDs feature (Zone 67, September 1998)

“We were looking at the stats…and I asked if we could compare two players. The Canadian producer proudly took me to the search screen and asked which players I wanted to look at. In an effort to keep things simple, I chose two right-wingers: Steve Stone and Darren Anderton. ‘Okay,’ he said, shifting in his seat a little. ‘Who does Darren Anderton play for again?’ Blank looks of incredulity all round before the assembled journalists replied in unison: ‘Spurs’. ‘Right, yeah,’ said the producer, looking decidedly embarrassed at his massive faux pas. ‘They’re a Scottish team, right?’”

From this point, Jeremy Wells started to get a bad feeling about EA’s FIFA Soccer Manager (Zone 68, October 1998)

“Broken Sword 2 is one of the worst games I’ve ever played in my life!”

In a piece about celebrity gamers, author Alex Garland doesn’t seem all that impressed by the adventures of Stobbart (Zone 72, January 1999)

 

Next time: Part 5: Dave Woods, ‘Wheatos’, the Daily Mail and Steve Hill’s Reality Check…