Why Sid Meier Is Wrong About Sid Meier’s Covert Action

Spies! They’re kind of dicks®. If they’re not seducing us or gambling away our taxes, they’re shoving microphones into cats or jabbing us with umbrellas. It’s hardly surprising that so many games about them veer into cartoonish James Bond territory, or cartoonish parody of cartoonish James Bond territory, or some kind of recursive humour vacuum that threatens to make Miranda Harts of us all.

But there’s a lot to be said for the more grounded approach. Sid Meier’s Covert Action, for example, steers clear of supervillains and outlandish capers, instead presenting a sort of action puzzle, with various criminal mysteries to be solved via a collection of minigames. Say “collection of minigames” in the early 90s and the responses you’d get would likely be “take this film licence dreck out the back and shoot it”, but Covert Action is a far better game than that technically accurate description lets on – and one still worth playing today. Let me explain.

Your job, as CIA spy Max Remington, is to investigate and expose sinister plots, and thwart them by arresting as many of the participants as possible, using some combination of tapping phones, decrypting messages, tailing people by car, and creeping around their bases digging up evidence or killing their dudes. Each success or failure turns up more information, or wastes your time – trivial matters like death are irrelevant to Remington, as being shot enough times simply leaves him/her needing a bit of a lie down, presumably because the hunky hunks or hot hotties presented at the end of a mission are not lovers but fresh souls to be consumed to sustain Max’s unholy life. Being injured or captured does, however, waste a lot of time, and as the plot carries on without you, time can be rather precious.

There’s a semi-famous quote by Sid Meier about what he calls the ‘Covert Action Rule’. Paraphrased as “make one game, not multiple disparate minigames”, it’s a sound principle, but I’ve always thought it did Covert Action a disservice. It works better than Sid gave it credit for. Microprose built four distinct subgames whose outcome contribute to each other and to a singular metagame. Let’s say your initial clues point towards a group called Tupamaros, and the city of Bogota. There’s no Tupamaros hideout in Bogota, but there’s one in Medellin, so you might jet off to Medellin and tap their phones, looking for a message you can decrypt. You might also break in and poke around, rifling through documents, hacking computers, and leaving bugs, hoping for information on the hideout in Bogota, or a name or picture you could follow up on elsewhere.

But you might instead go directly to Bogota, and sneak into Mossad’s offices to see if they knew anything useful. Or you could stay in Washington for a little while, digging around some local gang haunts, hoping someone there might get involved with the plot at a later stage. Or park outside the headquarters of a Tupamaros ally, hoping to see the woman from a photograph you have, and tail her to somewhere new. These could all be useful.

See, while the details are randomised, the plots are linear, with each actor carrying out their part only when certain conditions are met. Even if you know for a fact that someone’s dirty, until they’ve been directly implicated arresting them is just a waste of everyone’s time. You might be independent, but you’re an arm of the law, and there’s no Guantanamo Bay in 1990. We were still getting over our thing with Russia, and synthpop. It was a difficult time.

In a clever move, the participants in a plot will go into hiding if their job is either done or made impossible by your activities, so your actions feel significant. There’s the real pressure of the unknown, an invisible countdown as hidden people scheme behind your back. The plots are driven directly by individuals – they don’t sit back until a script magically declares the plot done, rather, they actively acquire tools and exchange messages, which you can intercept at any stage. If the plot involves a payment to a man making a bomb, there will be a bomb, there will be a payment, and they will change hands unless you show up to intervene.

Structurally, Covert Action has held up remarkably well over the 24 years since its release (and yes, I too had to double check that and immediately regret it). Its randomised missions would be quite fashionable today, and yet it maintains clear direction alongside a strong sense of the player’s agency. At its lowest difficulty level, it’s entertaining and clever even if it does practically shove you into bed with a red-handed Blofeld.

Like fellow crimebuster SWAT 4, it’s only when you beef the difficulty up that the really clever part of its design becomes clear. Upping the ante makes the clues scarce, the puzzles more complex and the criminals more aggressive, actively harassing and disrupting your plans. It’s often a struggle to prevent the crime at all, and as a result it almost becomes a different game. Where most games just throw more enemies at you, mistaking “challenging” for “laborious”, Covert Action does generate more and faster guards, but instead of just creating busywork, this forces you to play smarter.

The harder you make it, the more planning and lateral thinking you have to do, and at the highest setting, those easy infiltration options become a huge risk and time sink. Ignoring alarms and storming the gates will see you overwhelmed and captured, and stealth will be slow and unsafe, all for longer chains of clues before finding ever scarcer evidence. Messing up too much will make suspects difficult to bug, let alone arrest, and even preliminary investigations to find out what cities or groups are active becomes a risk.

Before long, you’ll find yourself planning every move in advance, weighing each against its possible consequences, minimising risks and squeezing every benefit out of any evidence or suspects you pin down. On easier settings you can often arrest several suspects in a row as they rat each other out, but at the other end, you might struggle to locate even one, and find yourself holding back on arresting him, instead cautiously bugging his headquarters and tracking his movements in the hope that he’ll lead you to someone else. It’s faster than jetting around the world digging for clues, and safer than barging in and getting shot. Essentially, perhaps before you even realise it, you’ll be acting like a real person would in such circumstances. Don’t know what gangs are active? Bug a random one and hope you get a lead. Tapping that woman’s phone got you nothing? She’s probably not involved, don’t waste any more time.

It’s a very different game, but aspects of its design philosophy remind me of the venerable Star Control 2 (aka The Ur-Quan Masters), both games letting you loose in a world with an active plot you’re blind to, but can stumble into from several directions if you follow the right thread. Covert Action’s short plots also prevent the big drawback of such an approach – that the player might reach a frustrating no-win situation – by simply letting you fail that case, take the hit to your score, and move on to the next.

It’s not all good, of course. There soon comes a sense of repetition, as there are only a handful of possible plots. They’ll typically play out differently as you thwart them from different angles, but all the locations and organisations are interchangeable, with no character or reason to take anything personally. Most notably, your nominal allies, MI5 and Mossad, will sometimes be involved in a plot, but function identically to everyone else. And while I admire the design, the extreme difficulty of the combat/infiltration sections become too frustrating, not least due to the awkward and under-responsive controls. This is perhaps unfair, as there’s nothing stopping me from lowering the difficulty (indeed, after nabbing a Mastermind, you’re given a chance to do just that), but it would benefit from the ability to make more precise tweaks, particularly as the upper end of the scale is where the meat of the game really lies.

For the most part though, what criticisms I can level at Covert Action are mainly down to age. Both the controls and a few glitches come down to the era in which it was made, and it’s easy to look at it now in an age of videogame plenty and see untapped potential that probably wasn’t within realistic reach at the time. It’s well worth playing now, and actually on sale unlike its nearest relative, Floor 13, and until someone takes up its mantle and/or I seize control of Sid Meier’s brain, it’s comfortably the best game of its kind.

42 Comments

  1. Michael Fogg says:

    In some ways this is the grandfather of Deus Ex and Alpha Protocol, yet even more open-ended. Some talented indie dev should totally do a spiritual successor, perfect material for those 100 episodes let’s play series to drive the sales.

    • Ex Lion Tamer says:

      Yeah, as a huge fan of that branch of design philosophy, this sounds wonderful – I was too young to be aware of Covert Action at the time, but I may have to pick it up. A lot of the content here sounds ripe for a solo or small-team developer to attempt now, no question.

      Incidentally, really enjoying the “Sin Vega tackles game I stupidly missed” intermittent series. I look forward to more.

      • Michael Fogg says:

        I thought this was first in the series, what others did Sin do?

        • sinister agent says:

          SHAMELESS SELF-PLUG opportunity detected!

          I wrote about King of Dragon Pass a few weeks back: link to rockpapershotgun.com , and there’s a link in there to one on Hidden Agenda, an even more obscure political sim.

          You’re right about Deus Ex too. That’s a connection I never really made, but having a bit of a think about it makes it seem silly that I didn’t.

  2. Jp1138 says:

    Can we have a modern remake, please Firaxis? Thanks

  3. TaylanK says:

    To be precise, Sid’s comment was more on the length of the infiltration sequence compared to other parts of the game, the end result being you could lose your grip on the overall plot by the time you were done with one of those infiltration missions. I agree with him on that one. It’s not a matter of more vs less variety, it’s a matter of focus and cohesion as a whole.

    • sinister agent says:

      I sort of agree and disagree with him, and think that a lot of it depends on how you play it. It might help that I’ve got used to playing on the most difficult settings, where you’re necessarily more focussed on your purpose for breaking in at all… but that said, it’s a really tough way to play and would likely burn you out fast. And it doesn’t exactly negate the criticism either.

      A remake would definitely need to make the other skills/games more relevant though, or perhaps give different ways to break in so it didn’t have to take so long. Also, a way to access your files during the process. I’d imagine they would have done the latter if it was feasible at the time, given their later habit of including in-game encyclopedias.

      • TaylanK says:

        OK, here’s my theory:
        I feel like the integration is a balance of how tightly coupled the minigames are to the main game versus how long they are. And I think the more loosely coupled a mini game is, the better for it to be short. So for instance, the infiltration missions are loosely coupled in Covert Action to the rest of the game, and so are the wiretapping missions. By that I mean there is very little narrative carry-over, the wiretap circuitry is not related to the characters in the game, and the office building layout is just randomly generated and not dependent on any plot actors in the game. Even though both are loosely coupled to the main game, wiretapping fits better because it is short. Infiltration stands out because it is long.

        To compare that to other games: In Total War, battle scenes have more narrative carry over in the sense that the terrain, the armies, and the commanders are all actors in the strategy view. It is more tightly coupled compared to Covert Action. The extreme example is Football Manager where you could think of each activity in the game as a very tightly coupled mini-game (squad management, transfers, training, staff & board, etc), with the actors having direct impact on every aspect of the game. Because of that you could spend hours in the transfer window without losing grip on the main course of the game.

  4. Yserbius says:

    Reminds me of the old C64 game The Fourth Protocol. There was no outlandish feats. Most of the spying was done from behind a desk via sending people to tail a possible target or putting together clues from wiretaps. And yes, minigames.

  5. BuffyNZ says:

    Covert Action is one of my top 5 games of all time, is one of the 3 or 4 games that is always installed on my PC (With Kerbal Space Program, Uplink and Project Space Station), and is part of my laptop gaming kit.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Anyone who’s read Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil” will probably get a chuckle out of this line from the manual like I did:

    Stopping the international criminals of today is a hands-on business. You can’t sit in an office and move pins on a map.

    Basically sums up the growing hands-off CIA laxness that (arguably) let 9/11 happen. Funny because Microprose apparently knew how to spy better than a real-life spy agency. (Even if they muddled the specifics — the CIA’s [reported] problem was more about eschewing human contacts for electronic surveillance, rather than actually breaking in and doing wiretaps and combat and the sort of stuff you do in the game.)

    Anyway, this is looking bloody brilliant and I’m playing it now. Well, actually, reading the manual now, because I got to my first wiretap and realised I had nine minutes to complete a task I was completely unqualified for. Reading manuals! What a fun throwback.

    And yes, someone needs to do a modern remake. Though as with all remakes, I worry about faithfulness versus modern accessibility, especially in a game that’s specifically designed to be a riddle.

    • Hex says:

      I really miss manuals. :(

      • JackMultiple says:

        what’s a manual?

        • spectone says:

          A manual is a primitive DRM system that doesn’t require the Internet or even have moving parts.

          • Premium User Badge

            Wisq says:

            It’s actually really funny how many old copy protection schemes relied on the absence of photocopiers/scanners (e.g. SMCA’s “ID the leader” or MOO’s “ID the ship”), or on the limitations thereof (e.g. SimCity’s black-on-red codesheet that photocopied as all black), or even just on the absence of file sharing (e.g. all the code wheels that can be summed up in a simple text file). Heck, a lot of those could’ve been transcribed to paper by hand.

            Basically, they targeted only the most utterly casual of copying, in an effort to gently tell people “you’re not supposed to do that”. They didn’t even try to stop the dedicated copiers.

            To this day, I still don’t know if that was a question of economics, or of restraint, or respect for the customer — or just a lack of means. If they had access to modern DRM, would they have used it, even back then in the absence of the internet and the internet pirate networks?

          • rooppa says:

            My compleate favorite form of DRM (if there is such a thing) was Dune 2 the orignal Amega version. it would allow you to play through the game, but at around the 5th and then again at the 10th level, it asked you for a word out of the manual.

            “please enter the 5th word on the 20th line on the 9th page of the manual”

            The words where always some obscure word that related to the game its self. Its so basic, but was esencialy meant that you had to have a copy of the manual in order to proceed with the game.

          • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

            STUNTS, one of the first games I played, did the same. My version was pirated and had a text file with the answers, which my father kindly printed out. It would always ask a question out of a list of about twenty, and one of the answers was ‘the’. (Other was, fittingly, ‘stunts’.)

  7. Commander Gun says:

    Some of these pictures remind me a bit of “Where in the world is Carmen Santiago?” although that’s more detective than covert action of course.

  8. malkav11 says:

    Covert Action is easily up there with the best of Meier’s output, yet often gets overlooked. Glad to see that being remedied here.

  9. HyenaGrin says:

    I actually didn’t play this until about a year ago. I saw a Let’s Play of it and just had to try it.

    It does not require nostalgia for this to legit be a good game even today (though perhaps it might require a certain tolerance for terrible, ancient UIs). It’s one of the most honest, on-point games I’ve ever played. I would kill for a modern remake that is true to the spirit and the scope of the original. Literally transplant the entire game into something with a modern UI and some decent graphics and you would have an instant winner.

    Sadly, I think Sid Meier’s has kinda moved past their creative stage and are really just churning out mass product at this point (even if it’s decent mass product), so even if they did remake Covert Agent, I would not expect it to capture the original game at all. Maybe I am just bitter and jaded.

    • Scandalon says:

      Your wording makes it sound like you think Sid Meyer is a group? Sid is an individual person who did/led/got-the-name-on-the-box-for lot’s of notable titles back in the day.

  10. AlexxKay says:

    A friend and I are actually working on a spiritual successor to Covert Action, right now! More Covert, and no action to speak of. Some details to be found on my LiveJournal: link to alexx-kay.livejournal.com

    Progress is slow, due to various health issues, but we’re soldiering on, and should have something showable in about a year…

  11. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Oh, and big kudos to Sid and Microprose for giving players a gender option. The use of the gender-neutral name “Max” (being either Maximillian or Maxine) was IMO a brilliant touch, even if it’s perhaps obvious in hindsight. They didn’t have to change a single bit of dialogue, nor anything in the printed manual.

    This is the sort of thing that should be humbling for any modern dev that whines about how much extra work it is to be inclusive. Sid Meier pulled it off in 1990, so what’s your excuse? Voice acting? 3D models? That’s the price you agreed to pay when you decided that “AAA” games had to be 100% 3D and 100% voice acted. You made your bed, now lie in it.

  12. Jerkzilla says:

    Is your real name Sin Vega? Because that’d be totally badass.

    • tormos says:

      I’ve seen no evidence that it isn’t but I only know Sin through internet so what do I know?

  13. dethtoll says:

    Max Remington? Really?

    MAX REMINGTON?

    Could you get more 80s?

    • rooppa says:

      Ex special forces Srgt Max Remington

    • stahlwerk says:

      Max D. Remington III is an actual person and was the art director at microprose for most of their “golden years”, except on…

      link to maxremington.com

      His name showed up in most “roster” based character selections in MicroProse Sims, along with Bill “Wild Bill” Stealy, Sid “Slime” Meier, and Andy “DownShift” Hollis, e.g. here:

      link to mobygames.com

  14. dawolf says:

    Plus, you could also play as Maxine Remington.

  15. DavidE says:

    With reference to the last paragraph, I am slowly remaking Floor 13. No really. link to tumblr.com

  16. geldonyetich says:

    This is another one of those games in which I remember seeing the box around the store when I was younger, but I never give it a rental.

    Having seen a bit of a Lets Play on YouTube, I am inclined to think that this was developed as a grownup version of the Carmen Sandiego games. The core resemblance is that it is a largely menu-driven game where you are globe hopping against a time limit in order to nab a perpetrator and bring them to justice. However, the Carmen Sandiego games were about teaching you to use an almanac, here we swap that out for mini-games and a data repository of clues you find. Overall, Sid Meyer’s Covert Action was quite a bit more complex.

    I sort of suspect if a game like this was released in the present environment, people would be in an uproar about how it condones an invasion of privacy. Phone tapping? Breaking in and snooping around? This is how Interpol secures arrests?!

  17. jodi says:

    Just a boring comment mentioning that the quote link in paragraph 4 is kinda broke.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    After playing this for a few days straight, I can say that things do get much more interesting at the higher difficulties (even aside from the minigames themselves).

    At the top difficulty, you frequently start out having no idea where to go (no location clues, no activity on the Activity Report); it can be a day or more before you even know of a single suspect; you’ll have a lot of suspects where you know their name and role but not their affiliation or location; suspects will almost always say “hmm, no, I don’t remember” when interrogated unless you turn them; suspects will go into hiding very quickly after completing their mission, but will come back out of hiding and retry their tasks if you wreck the mission (e.g. confiscate stuff); etc etc.

    If the above sounds fun but you can’t handle the minigames (particularly combat, urgh): Your skills at the start work to directly reduce the difficulty of the minigames, and each can be improved three times. Improving them to Awesome (3x) on Global difficulty (level 4, max) is about the same as improving them to Good (1x) on National difficulty (level 2).

    Since I liked the minigame difficulty of National but wanted the mission difficulty of Global, I started a Global game but memory-hacked all my skills to Awesome. All the minigames are decently tricky now (except crypto, since I wrote a program to help solve those and maintain my own common words list for it), but not overwhelmingly hard like they would normally be, and I also don’t have to exclusively focus on certain skills to the exclusion of others. And yeah, solving things is tricky now — I’ve already failed my second mission, even though I caught the Mastermind.

  19. Shigawire says:

    Excellent article. I grew up playing Sid Meier’s games in the early 1990s.. but the first time I played Covert Action was around 2004. I was amazed at how addictive it was. I again played it for large chunks of time in 2006 and again in 2009. Despite the horribly aged mini-games, the meta-game sold it for me.

    I liked some mini-games more than others. The worst –right off the bat– are the car chase mini-games, which reminds me of the Ghostbusters game for Commodore 64. But the cryptography game, the wiretapping, the break-ins, the piecing together of disparate facts and clues.. that was the fun part.

    Sid Meier may need some distance of time from this project to reconsider its merits. If Sid Meier takes a good long look at the core game design behind this gem, I hope he finds it in his heart to re-design the game for the modern era. I think a remade Covert Action should stay in the 70s-80s, because the nature of terrorism back then was widespread and distributed all around the planet. Germany had the ultra-violent marxist groupings, such as Rote Armee Fraktion. The British isles had a visibly more violent IRA. The Basque ETA was much more active in Spain, PFLP in Palestine, and many many more (plus all the State Actors). And during the 70s and 80s, all of these organizations would have complicated and loose affiliations with each other. They had some cross-interaction of weapon sales, training programmes, sometimes intersecting goals, sharing of intelligence. This is why I find this era of terrorism more “fascinating” than the current era of terrorism.

    So what could Sid Meier do with a remade Covert Action? In fact, based on my devastating opinion on Civilization: Beyond Earth, I’m not even convinced Sid Meier is the right man to be doing this remake. I would imagine a 3D game engine would be a great starting position to make this game. I would still like to see some procedural generation to generate buildings and rooms to infiltrate. Though less messy and more rule based, because it seemed completely random in Covert Action where the couches and items in a room were distributed. Beyond that, a cover-based infiltration game with the stealth from Thief meets Splinter Cell meets Hitman. So you could use shadows, silence and cover.. or you could disguise yourself to gain entry, while trying to avoid suspicion. Opening drawers to photograph documents, checking wall paintings for safes or buttons, placing bugs at discrete strategic locations. You could also get an “Alien Isolation” or “Amnesia” vibe from the danger of infiltration.. if you are in an office where nobody is allowed to be, you could have to hurry to a closet, or under a desk.. and try to stay silent. Sound design could be very important for this kind of suspenseful spy thriller experience. Car tailing would be handled completely differently.. Cryptography and wiretapping are already nearly perfect, and may not need much redesign. A better “node based” spreadsheet to see the current data clues, and the hierarchy of the terror plot. This game deserves a remake soon. If not by Sid Meier, at least someone else could do it. Perhaps a Kickstarter!