I felt like trying something new today, so after toying with the idea of downloading legendary military sandbox Arma III (and eventually resisting — its £35.99 price point is a little too high for me to consider taking a risk on it at the moment) I wandered over to GOG.com and took a look at a game that has caught my interest several times over the years: Sid Meier’s Covert Action.
I remember first seeing adverts for Covert Action back in multi-format games magazine Advanced Computer Entertainment (aka ACE) way back around 1990, when the game first came out. I recall being intrigued by the prospect of what looked like a fairly convincing “spy game” — something that hadn’t really been done at the time, and certainly not in the way that Covert Action chooses to do things.
Covert Action is, unlike other espionage-themed games on the market, very much a “spy simulator”. Straddling a line somewhere between a surprisingly huge number of different genres, Covert Action casts you in the role of superspy Max (or Maxine) Remington as he (or she) attempts to foil the devious plots of various bands of criminals around the world. These plots range from simple thefts all the way up to the construction of doomsday devices, but the execution remains the same: gather evidence, infiltrate facilities, intercept communications and eventually — hopefully — bring the perpetrators to justice. Or, if you’re as incompetent as me, arrest a few of them and allow the remaining criminals to happily get away with what they were planning.
Covert Action is split into a number of different components. The “main” part of the game, if you can call it that, involves moving from location to location both within cities and around the world, and choosing the best course of action. Actions always take varying amounts of time, so if you spend too long dilly-dallying around, you’ll find the criminals get one, two, three steps ahead of you before you know it. This is a game about preventing a crime before it happens rather than solving a crime that has already happened, and as such you have to go about things a little differently to how you might do in other games; you have to anticipate what your opponents’ moves might be, then react accordingly, ideally to catch them in the act and be able to arrest them in such a manner that causes the remainder of their plot to fall to pieces.
Choosing to perform various actions in the game’s locations triggers minigames. Choose to wiretap a building’s phones, for example, and you’ll be confronted with a challenging PipeMania-esque puzzle where you must reroute power away from both the phones and the alarm systems of the building. Choose to decrypt an intercepted communication from one of the perps and you’ll actually have to crack the code using your own brainpower. Opt to tail a suspect and see if they lead you anywhere interesting, and you’ll find yourself playing an oddly strategic driving game in which you order two cars around in an attempt to follow the suspect without arousing their suspicions. And choose to break in to a facility and you’ll have to actually infiltrate it yourself.
It’s this latter part of the game that tends to form the meat of most investigations — and it’s also an aspect that Meier himself was somewhat dissatisfied with, feeling that the game’s minigames weren’t tied together in a coherent enough manner. Break-ins are not the only option for gathering information, but they’re by far the most efficient and as such you’ll spend quite a lot of time doing them.
They take the form of an interesting pre-Metal Gear stealth action game in which you control Max as s/he explores a randomly generated building, opening filing cabinets and drawers and photographing all the files s/he can. You’ll also have to deploy bugs in various items of furniture in order to raise your ability to perform remote surveillance on the building, and recover incriminating evidence from safes if you want to “turn” your opponents over to your side rather than simply arresting them. Some interesting, rudimentary AI sees guards patrolling the building and looking out for unusual things — containers you neglected to close, for example. You can also trick them somewhat by knocking one of them out and then disguising yourself in their uniforms — in a nice touch, your disguise will only continue to work if you don’t allow them to look at your front or side for any length of time, leading to some comic situations as Max stares at a wall, hoping that the guard who just opened the door behind him/her doesn’t decide to come in and check the room more thoroughly.
All the while you’re investigating, the criminals are working on their plot in the background, and if you’re not quick or careful enough, they will succeed. Regardless of whether you “win” or “lose” a case, however, the game continues, and you’re evaluated on your performance, with a certain number of points being available for each mission according to who you managed to arrest, what key items you managed to confiscate and whether you actually managed to foil the plot at all.
It’s a difficult, challenging, ambitious and somewhat flawed game, but it’s a magnificent example of the creativity of game developers in the early ’90s — particularly MicroProse, who were well-known for this sort of game around that time. It’s also a game absolutely crying out for a remake — with today’s technology, it’s more than possible for someone to do the game’s grand vision even more justice than the hardware and software of 1990 would allow.
That said, Covert Action still stands up remarkably well even today, despite its dodgy AdLib sound effects and horrid 16-colour EGA graphics. If you’re looking for something a little bit different to entertain you for a while, I’d urge you to check it out.