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.