We’re into part 6 of our history of PC Zone. Here are the previous instalments, if you haven’t read them already. This is the part where those looking forward to detailed coverage of the magazine during the early-mid 00s are likely to be disappointed.

Part 6: 2002-2005 – The Zone-less Years

I think I bought every single issue of PC Zone between mid-1998 and the end of the year 2000, and kept fairly up to date throughout 2001. In 2002 I downgraded from being a regular to an occasional reader, and then stopped buying it altogether. It was a gradual thing, really: I don’t have any feeling that anything in particular caused me to stop reading, except (as mentioned earlier) a slight feeling that the old Zone spirit wasn’t quite there anymore. That’s quite a vague and subjective statement: what is true is that virtually all of my favourite writers (apart from Steve Hill, and Paul Presley, who seemed to be appearing in the Zone pages more regularly again) had departed, and I guess the fairest way I can put it is that the 2002 me didn’t like the 2002 version of Zone as much as the teenage me liked the Zone of the 90s.

There was a redesign in the early months of 2002: I didn’t much care for the new look, but then, I felt the same about the 1998 redesign (which ditched what, to me, was the iconic Zone look) and soon got over it. In truth, the time had probably come: it had been over three and a half years since that last change. The separate Online Zone magazine disappeared; Feedback was integrated into the main letters page as Reader Reviews; Hot Topic was introduced as a collection of thoughts on a particular subject from the PC Zone forum; and the Top 100 was renamed The A-List, and no longer included review scores.

Before all that though, the beginning of the year finally brought an affirmative answer (in Zone’s view) to the question: “Better than Half-Life?” with coverage of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. (Reviews editor Martin Korda had previously suggested that Aliens vs. Predator 2 was the game to topple Valve’s seminal shooter, but this position wasn’t shared by the rest of the Zone crew). I’m not sure time has necessarily been kind to that particular view, but I guess this was before everyone got sick and tired of scripted war-based FPS games.

Stuart Campbell began a stint at Zone in 2001, contributing a regular feature on emulation, and a lengthy two-part feature on piracy followed in this period. Offering something a little more nuanced than the ‘Piracy is killing gaming’ angle that most of the press sort of had to follow, it was an interesting piece, even mentioning abandonware at some point: “An area of the illegal ‘underground’ almost exclusively devoted to PC games, abandonware, operates under a molecule-thin veneer of respectability”. Which sort of makes it sound quite dangerous and exciting, doesn’t it? Always buy games if you can, kids.

The Supertest returned, post redesign, minus any dressing up, and with the addition of a table summarising the thoughts of those involved. While there was still some mileage in some of the discussions, the feeling persisted that the reasons given for dropping the feature less than a year ago were still valid. Meanwhile, Steve Hill’s Reality Check disappeared, although the feature was re-worked in Zone 115 for a team-based write-up about paintballing, which seemed like little more than, well, an excuse for the writers to go paintballing.

DVD cover discs had previously been introduced as an occasional thing, but soon became a regular option, for a price, much like the HD/CD option of old. It was frequently said that the cover disc was the main draw for many readers, with the advent of high-speed internet connections that allowed people to pick and choose their own demo downloads contributing to the demise of print magazines. This may or may not have been the case, but I have to say that my own excitement over cover discs peaked in the 90s, and I was already ignoring them by this point.

Whatever caused me to stop buying Zone, it certainly wasn’t the demos on the cover disc. I don’t think it was the redesign, either. I actually quite liked some of the new features: Games That Changed The World, an in-depth look back at some great oldies written by fans of the game, including interviews with the developers (e.g. Chris Anderson on UFO, David McCandless returning for Doom), was a really great addition, and I also liked the introduction of the Retro Zone feature which looked back at gaming years gone by. And there were still glimpses of the old humour.

Whether it was me, or the magazine (or both) that had changed, I don’t know. 2002 happened to be the year that I finished university and had to go out into the wider world. Notwithstanding my inability to find a job and the resultant absence of disposable income to fund frivolities like a monthly gaming magazine (particularly as the price crept back up to £4.99 for the first time since 1998), it seemed like it was time to move on.

Looking back now, I think perhaps part of the problem was that I wasn’t all that excited about PC gaming any more. For the first time in my life, I wanted a current-generation console: the PlayStation 2. I wanted one even more when Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series came to the system. While debates about whether the latest consoles will ‘kill off’ PC gaming have always been (and always will be) a little bit daft, I was no longer such a snob about the situation.

Up to this point, I had always taken claims about ‘amazing’ console games with a pinch of salt. Sonic, Mario and Street Fighter 2 were never really my kind of thing, but there was always something about not having access to them that made me jealous of those with a Megadrive or SNES. For a PC owner used to the world of texture-mapped 3D, the generation of consoles that followed didn’t seem that impressive either. But, there would always be a mention of Goldeneye, or Ridge Racer, or Tekken (sometimes within the pages of PC Zone) that lent these console super-games an air of mystery. When I finally broke, and bought my first PlayStation (mainly to play ISS Pro Evolution, as it was then), I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback by the blocky and jagged visuals. Pro Evolution was still amazing, but after raiding the second hand shops for other classics I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.

In 2002, though, the available selection of PC titles gave me a similar feeling. My favourite genres didn’t seem to be particularly well-served anymore. While I dreamed of a PS2 and Pro Evo, the best football games the big beige box could muster were ports of EA’s extremely middling FIFA series (Steve Hill on FIFA 2002: “The usual contrary mix of immaculate production values and murky gameplay, with the ball behaving like a balloon full of rice pudding” and on 2002 FIFA World Cup: “It’s largely the game we know and don’t love”).

EA also humped over a mysteriously inferior version of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 to the PC (alluded to in the review, again by Mr Hill: “We attempted to bring you a preview several months ago, but were bizarrely scuppered by Electronic Arts. Having dispatched a list of generic questions to the powers that be, a wall of silence ensued, eventually followed by the revelation that the bulk of them were considered inappropriate. An example of one of the offending questions: ‘Are there any features specific to the PC?’”). Meanwhile, a preview of the new Broken Sword game (Zone 123) showed loveable (or not) wally George Stobbart re-imagined as a hunky Indiana Jones type, with creator Charles Cecil declaring the point and click adventure dead, as well as indicating that The Sleeping Dragon would be the last in the series.

The first person shooter, traditionally an area of strength for the PC, also seemed to suffer a dip in quality at this point. Sticking with the theme of understrength console ports, another big-name title, 007: Nightfire, had sections that were in the console version omitted altogether (a fact not mentioned at all in the Zone review). And I sadly couldn’t muster any excitement for a sequel to Unreal, a generous review of which later came to be considered another Zone misstep (although Stoo seemed to think it was quite good).

I could of course be making too much of this. A more sober assessment would also have to include the fact that games such as Morrowind and Freedom Force, also fondly remembered in these parts, were released during this period. And Grand Theft Auto III, too, although for some it would have meant an expensive upgrade to run properly. On the other hand, you could spend the same amount on a PS2 and play it with no problems (apart from the blummin’ joypad controls during the shooty bits, but I didn’t know that then). I do contend, though, that there was a marked increase in coverage of extremely similar-looking strategy games around this point. Warrior Kings? Does anyone remember Warrior Kings? I don’t know, maybe it was great. (If it was, do write in – you could win a prize).

Anyway, for whatever reason, Zone 123 was the last contact I’d have with the magazine for nearly four years.

Dodgy ads:

• Yet another terrible Championship Manager effort from Eidos, this time from the ‘footballers in clean kit pretending to play football’ tradition, to promote Championship Manager Quiz.

• A man farting in a bath for Xbox title Blood Wake.

(Also in Xbox news: The Xbox will/will not destroy PC gaming; the Xbox is/is not just a PC in a fancy box; Halo will/will not be released on the PC)

• A frankly odd piss-based advert for a graphics card: “The next time a nurse gets this excited about a ‘golden sample’, she’s really thinking about Gainward’s ‘Golden Sample’ graphic’s [sic] card. It does exactly what it says, all over the competition!”


“I buy your magazine to read reviews on games, not to listen to political ramblings from supposedly unbiased reviewers…stick to what you know best, namely, reviewing games, and let the politicians sort out the troubles elsewhere.”

– January’s letters page contains a grim foreshadowing of future gaming discourse (Zone 111, January 2002)

“Oh for heaven’s sake. How hard can it possibly be to simulate the entire universe in a game, fill it with dozens of alien races, set up a fully working dynamic real-time galactic economy, introduce a workable combat system and then add a persistent online aspect?”

– Paul Presley acknowledges the ambition, if nothing else, of Derek Smart’s Battlecruiser Millennium (Zone 112, February 2002)

“There’s no polite way of putting this so here goes. Steel Beasts is the reason pretty women, when they find out you enjoy playing computer games, would rather not spend any time with you in a social environment. It might as well be called ‘Nerd Combat’ or ‘Geek-O-Fun 3000’.”

– Prezzer again, this time on a tank game called Steel Beasts (Zone 123, Christmas 2002)

“Skimming along a sun-kissed beachfront may seem like a graceful pursuit, but in reality it’s like sitting in a wind tunnel while being whacked on the arse with an outsized cricket bat…Under advice, I wedge my feet against the seat in front and adopt a bestial squatting position, much like a man who has fouled himself and is awaiting assistance.”

– Steve Hill relishes the chance to go powerboating for Reality Check (Zone 112, February 2002)

“PC gamers of more than five years vintage may recall the original Hot Pursuit title, namely Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit. It was the most successful of the NFS series, hence this sequel/remake, which complicates the heritage further. It’s a bit a like releasing a film called Jaws 3D II: Sharp Teeth.”

– Hill, again, on Need for Speed, which used the Hot Pursuit name again in 2010 (Zone 123, Christmas 2002)


Next time: Part 7 – A bright Future, Log, Dominik Diamond and Willdre’s Photo Casebook…