Spy Hard: Sid Meier’s Covert Action

You can't say Maximillian without saying 'Ian'.

I love it when a plan comes together. On the surface, Covert Action is a game about minigames, each acting as an optional node in a procedurally generated tale of espionage and infiltration, but it’s really about the metagame. Covert Action is one of those games that bloody well deserves a remake – even Meier said it had tried to do too much on its initial release. It was about as ahead of its time as James Joyce shaking hands with an Eloi and I’d love to see a version made with modern tech. Maybe some of the charm would be lost though – I’ve been mucking about with the game this morning following a Steam release (it’s already on GoG) and it continues to be brilliant, despite overstretching itself and my brain cells.

Every game of Covert Action begins with the generation of a plot. Depending on the difficulty level, that plot might involve several political organisations, terrorist cells, and safehouses and agents scattered around the globe. Or it might be a case of planting a couple of wiretaps in Washington, next door to your own headquarters, tailing a car across town and then taking a quick flight to Rome to arrest a so-called mastermind.

Whatever else you’re doing, whether it’s tailing cars using a clever top-down ‘maze’ system, or planting wiretaps on a puzzle grid, your ultimate objective is to gather evidence. You begin the game with a dossier of clues, which lead to locations and characters in the game world, and then you choose how you’ll go about finding more data until you either have enough information to stop the plot, or fail and see it come to fruition.

It could have been made yesterday, etc etc

While I was playing this morning, I went to a known safehouse and planted a wiretap, then waited for someone to leave and trailed the car. It led me to a dingy little building that I had no intelligence about, so I decided to plant a wiretap there as well. I screwed up the puzzle, triggering an alarm, and had to run away.

My first wiretap linked the two suspects who were active in the US that I knew about with a third man, but his location was unknown. The last I knew of him placed him in Europe and that’s where I was heading when I decided to tab out of the game and enthuse about how enjoyable it is, even two and a half decades after release. It isn’t timeless – hence my desire for a remake – but it’s not quite like anything else out there. The Steam release is currently priced at £3.74, with the usual launch discount of 25%. It’s 5p cheaper on GoG but on Steam you can also buy it bundled with the classic versions of Pirates! Gold Plus and Colonization. That’s known as the Classic Explorers Pack because if there’s one thing Covert Action star Maximillian ‘Ian’ Remington likes to do, it’s explore his feelings while listening to Tori Amos and glugging down a bottle of Blossom Hill Zinfandel..

23 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    +1. It’s one of those games I recall being fantastic, until I actually dig it out and play it and remember that it got as many things wrong as it did right.

    But man, the things it got right. Firaxis! Make this remake happen.

  2. TaylanK says:

    I’ve actually found Sid’s thoughts on Covert Action to be great advice on game design. From wikipedia:

    “The mistake I think I made in Covert Action is actually having two games in there kind of competing with each other. There was kind of an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and the different roles and what cities they were in, and it was a kind of an involved mystery-type plot.

    I think, individually, those each could have been good games. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get on the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly, because the action was actually too intense. In Pirates!, you would do a sword fight or a ship battle, and a minute or two later, you were kind of back on your way. In Covert Action, you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out of [the mission], you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

    So I call it the “Covert Action Rule”. Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.” link to en.wikipedia.org

    I actually see that problem in Total War games, where the tactical action and strategic map compete for my focus in a play session. Anyways, thought I’d share.

    • Jp1138 says:

      It makes me a little sad every time I read that words from Meier. The ambition of old MPS games was amazing. I understand the coment, but cannot desagree more. I think I love every old Microprose game, specially the least known today: Covert Action, Sword of the Samurai, Red Storm Rising, etc, and would like Firaxis trying to update that formula, not just making a simple remake as they did with Pirates!.

      • celticdr says:

        Agreed! I miss the old Sid Meier games, they had so many awesome components, I remember with Covert Action and Pirates! my uncle and I would assume coop on different roles such as he would do the break-ins and I would be the driver in Covert Action. Lately Sid’s game design has been lacklustre – like in the redesign of Pirates! where he added that stupid dancing mini-game or Sky Patrol which is interesting for the first half hour then you realise there isn’t much more substance to it… the last great game he made was Simgolf (note I left out the Civ games because they haven’t really improved since Civ II).

        • Jp1138 says:

          The Pirates! remake wasn´t bad, but I think it was just too close to the original, and the art style didn´t fit the game very well for – I prefer what Pirates! Gold did. And Simgolf was a very fun little game, but I think it already showed the way Meier´s thinking was going: more focused gameplay, as in the Ace Patrol games you mention.

          I miss old Sid :(

    • warhammer651 says:

      I disagree. The problem is NOT two different games, the problem is how they are integrated. The reason things feel disjointed in covert action is because you have no way of checking your leads while breaking into a building. You break and enter, search and search for a computer so you can find information, but by the time you get there you’ve forgotten who you’re going after. If there were a simple notebook/pipboy/notes function it would go a long way toward making things more playable.

      On Total war, again I disagree. The campaign in Total War is primarily there to give you context to your battles, and also change your playstyle. The strategies you use in one RTS where units don’t carry over between missions is very different than in the games where your units level up/gain veterancy (compare units in fire emblem to advanced wars).

      • Kohlrabi says:

        You can use an oldschool pencil and paper to jot down your notes and leads like the gamers of old.

    • welverin says:

      Isn’t that exactly what X-COM does, and does extremely well?

      • Danopian says:

        You beat me to it. X-COM is…exactly this, but done right. I agree with warhammer above, it’s about integrating the two gameplay modes well.

        But then, how many games like X-COM do we have? Not many. And if either of the modes was less well designed than the other, or not tied together in concrete ways, one would detract from the other’s experience. So maybe it’s not impossible but just extremely difficult?

        OPINION, AWAY!

      • valrus says:

        I think the reason X-COM succeeds in this is that its “overworld” game requires relatively little of the player’s memory. You arrange things (research, manufacturing, facilities, interceptions) and once it’s time for them to happen, they happen, even if during a long mission they slipped your mind.

  3. Infinitron says:

    You might want to mention that this was released by a newly formed publisher dedicated to re-releasing old games: link to gamasutra.com

    • Pazguato says:

      Yes, this should be added. Maybe an interview with this lovely people talking about his projects, Adam?

    • Hex says:

      Would love to see a publisher dedicated to releasing (faithful) new versions of classics.

  4. Ross Angus says:

    Is this the game Tom Francis talked about in that episode of Crate & Crowbar?

  5. Arach says:

    Its a fantastic game but you know what´s infuriating about this? The fact that a freaking game has to be released on steam for game sites to even remember it exists,Covert Action has been available DRM free on GOG for quite a while now but clearly that isn´t good enough.

    Its one of the reasons the service can´t seem to get any bigger,no press covers new releases there,only when they hit steam.

    It just feels really unfair.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Serrit says:

    This sounded interesting when Tom Francis was talking about it over on the Crate and Crowbar episode 28 (around 21m20s).

    I think I’ll give it a go :-)
    (Edit: Whoops didn’t see Ross has already mentioned this above!)

    • Pazguato says:

      Yes, this should be added. Maybe an interview with this lovely people talking about his projects, Adam?

  7. ebyronnelson says:

    I like how Adam inadvertently (or not) refers to Sid Meier as an ‘it’: ‘… even Meier said it had tried to do too much’; lol. When one insists on attaching one’s full name to something like a video game franchise, I suppose one deserves it-status.

  8. gguillotte says:

    This is one of my favorite games of all time, and one of the best games at demonstrating how old some “new” mechanics really are and how low-res they can be effectively implemented.

    Disparate gameplay types and non-linear stories, like GTA? Even taking Sid Meier’s own issues with their implementation in Covert Action into account, it’s here.

    Procedural content and emergent storytelling? Gender-selectable lead character? Stealth action and target profiling? All in Covert Action.

    Hacking and circuit-breaking minigames? Done better in CA than most games since. Graying the lines between enemy combatants and civilians through interpreting personal details hacked from computers? CA did it decades before, say, Watch Dogs.

    Hell, even a precursor of the nemesis system everyone’s raving about from Shadow of Mordor is in Covert Action–capture a low-level bad guy and the rest of the organization reacts, reorganizes, or goes into hiding. Capture an officer of one organization and another takes their place, and it might be someone you’ve hunted down before.

    I don’t think there was a game that ate as much of my time until XCOM came out, and I still come back to this one via the GOG version.

  9. NEligahn says:

    Covert Action was one of the earliest games I remember playing and remains one of my all time favorite games, even if it hasn’t aged extremely well.

    Starting with the manual, which had background information and stories, giving you insight into the world of espionage in the game. I loved figuring out the mysteries through the clues, especially as I grew up and was better able to understand what was required to progress and catch the bad guys.

    I would love a modern reinterpretation of Covert Action, as long as they don’t turn it into a Syndicate-esque complete FPS confused mess.