Good Old Reviews: Sid Meier's Covert Action

Good Old Reviews: Sid Meier's Covert Action

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Sid Meier month continues with the spy simulation game Covert Action.

Dropping you into the shoes of a CIA field agent, Sid Meier's Covert Action (recently released at GOG for $5.99) tasks you with the tried-and-true goal of saving the free world from political groups, terrorist cells and rival spies. What perhaps makes it unique among spy games is the focus of its gameplay. Whereas many games take the shoot-em-up GoldenEye route when dealing with spy work, Covert Action is a game firmly about investigation. Violence is an option, but at the end of the day your best bet is to stay in the shadows, collecting evidence, exposing conspirators and unraveling plots with subtlety.

The meat of Covert Action lies in its investigative process, which actually requires some thought to succeed at. Mercifully, most of your toils are grounded in common sense. For instance, when one of your clues is Paris and the other is a note discussing the Marxist party, it doesn't take a genius to figure out you should head to France and look up the local communists. This isn't to say that things don't ever become more complicated. The entire push of the game, after all, is taking small clues and tidbits and using them to uncover larger plots.

In turn, the player can expect some moments where not everything is apparent. For instance, you'll frequently arrive in a city and discover that the faction you're looking for has their hideout hidden so that it's not immediately accessible to plucky spies like yourself. Uncovering their whereabouts requires a roundabout process of looking into their allies, placing wiretaps, tracing cars and even just flat out breaking into other local agencies to see what clues you can sniff out.

Where the game runs into trouble is in the mechanics you'll need to use to actually acquire all of this information. Hacking, cryptography, combat, car chases; these are the core play portions of the game and none of them are particularly fun. Hacking, for instance, is a dull connect-the-flow puzzle that you'll have to repeat whenever you want to set up a wire tap or bug a car. I'd also challenge you to find a more boring vehicle chase game than Covert Action's, which basically amounts to watching pixelated cars drive around a bland map with relatively minimal input from the player.

The worst part for me however, was the game's infiltration and combat mechanics. Granted, part of my problems came from the fact that the movement controls were designed for the numpad of a full-fledged keyboard; something my laptop doesn't have. Instead I was forced to make do with the top row number keys, which are clearly not arranged to be convenient and intuitive movement controls. That being the case, there were still other things that bothered me about this part of the game.

Even setting aside my less than ideal control options, movement is often stiff and unintuitive. Moreover, while the game does feature a functional targeting system that's easy to use (once you know how it works), the whole thing still just tends to feel kind of clunky. Now, I can forgive some levels of clunk when the game itself provides and interesting enough experience. Covert Action, sadly, is not interesting enough, even in its better portions, for me to look past its flaws.

In the end, Covert Action just never quite managed to impress me the way I wanted it to. It's not that every part of it's bad. In fact, I'd love to see its concepts of thought driven investigation return in something more modern and better balanced. Unfortunately, Covert Action's pros never quite offset it cons. It's great when you make a breakthrough in a case, but making progress just requires you to repeat too many lackluster mechanics over and over until the game itself feels like chore.

Update: When I originally played Covert Action, I did it largely without instructions due to them not being available. This led to a misunderstanding on my part involving the game's targeting system among other things. After a helpful reader explained where I'd gone astray, I rebooted the game to give it a bit more play time and readjusted my review accordingly.

We'll be closing out Sid Meier month with the classic simulation Pirates!

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I'd like to see a remake of this game, with a bit of an open world, that doesn't dissolve into a GTA rip-off. There aren't enough brain games, with a bit of action mixed in. I was tired of flow games, especially the apps that come on my phone now for along time, so they would certainly need to improve how you are successful at some of these skills. Even an on-line component would be pretty cool, defend yourself against other online "spys".

Note to author - invest in a $10 blue-tooth keyboard for your laptop. :)

Wait, this was the secret surprise review we had to wait a week for since GOG didn't have the game yet?
And you can't recommend the game in any way?
So we waited a week for GOG to put up a certain game for you to review and we should avoid this game?

I don't get it...

I'd love to work on a remake =) Covert action is one of those games I loved "back then", but which has, undoubtedly, aged..

I remember the game fondly, but I'm willing to believe it may not have aged well... Or that my patience with games that task you with playing the same mini-games over and over to progress may have withered with time.

An aged game certainly, I really enjoyed the Let's Play I saw of it a few years ago, now I gotta dig it up to share.


He did a hard mode run too, not sure if this is it, I didn't get a chance to look

If the bad guys are disappearing it's because they ducked below a piece of furniture. When they do that, it's time to either toss a grenade, leap over the thing they're behind (that takes the arrow keys though), or step out of the room.

If you're missing, it's because you didn't wait for the reticle on your character in the upper left to turn white. If it takes too long, either get an uzi or stop getting into stand up fights. Shooting at bad guys who actually know you're there is a sucker's game anyway.

StewShearer:
Granted, part of my problems came from the fact that the movement controls were designed for the numpad of a full-fledged keyboard; something my laptop doesn't have.

Is it that hard to plug in an external keyboard (or not plug in a wireless bluetooth one)?

Brilliant feature to have each week. Thank you, and don't be afraid to have them more than once a week. There's such a huge catalog of old games available on sites like GoG now!

JenSeven:
Wait, this was the secret surprise review we had to wait a week for since GOG didn't have the game yet?
And you can't recommend the game in any way?
So we waited a week for GOG to put up a certain game for you to review and we should avoid this game?

I don't get it...

Sorry if you were mislead. Not at all our intent. It was supposed to be less a "surprise" and more a game I couldn't talk about because GOG hadn't announced it yet themselves.

Omechron:
If the bad guys are disappearing it's because they ducked below a piece of furniture. When they do that, it's time to either toss a grenade, leap over the thing they're behind (that takes the arrow keys though), or step out of the room.

If you're missing, it's because you didn't wait for the reticle on your character in the upper left to turn white. If it takes too long, either get an uzi or stop getting into stand up fights. Shooting at bad guys who actually know you're there is a sucker's game anyway.

Oh! Thanks much for this. GOG wasn't able to provide much in the way of a manual for while I was playing this and, despite several searches, online documentation is a tad scant (at least as far as I could find). In other words, I was figuring out a lot on my own. I still can't say I liked it too much, but I'll have to update the review to be more accurate. Thanks again!

Aardvaarkman:

StewShearer:
Granted, part of my problems came from the fact that the movement controls were designed for the numpad of a full-fledged keyboard; something my laptop doesn't have.

I'll have to be doing that once I get some money.

[quote="Tanneseph" post="7.839805.20632045"]Brilliant feature to have each week. Thank you, and don't be afraid to have them more than once a week. There's such a huge catalog of old games available on sites like GoG now!

I would love to but, alas, limited time, staff, etc. Thanks much though for the support!

StewShearer:
GOG wasn't able to provide much in the way of a manual

Now that is a true shame. Covert Action's manual was amazing. It was huge, and it had lots of pieces of story and in-character insight that really made the game better.

CA was one of the more flawed of Sid's games, but I certainly had a lot of fun with it. On high difficulty levels, the wiretapping requires very quick thinking, and the combat sequences are risky and deadly.
The UI and gameplay is clunky for sure, but there is quite a lot of depth underneath. It's more of a thinking game than an action game.

Klei Entertainment is making a game about infiltrating buildings. The footage I have seen reminds me a little of CA, I think the may have something good cooking.
http://www.invisibleincgame.com/

StewShearer:

JenSeven:
Wait, this was the secret surprise review we had to wait a week for since GOG didn't have the game yet?
And you can't recommend the game in any way?
So we waited a week for GOG to put up a certain game for you to review and we should avoid this game?

I don't get it...

Sorry if you were mislead. Not at all our intent. It was supposed to be less a "surprise" and more a game I couldn't talk about because GOG hadn't announced it yet themselves.

I think a lot of the problem was the previous article pointing out that GOG had released the game. It comes across as strange that you would make a separate article tell us about the release and telling us to wait for the review if we're not sure about buying it only to have you say in the review you wouldn't really recommend the game. It begs the question why did you feel the need to point out that GOG had it then later tell us it wasn't that good instead of just waiting until the review to tell us all of that at once?

Ah, I see. Well, that mostly just supposed to be a news story about the game's release. I popped in something about the review because, well, why not? That said, I apologize for any confusion.

I'd point out though that this isn't the first time a news story has announced the release of a GOG game and also included a nod toward a future Good Old Review. Rune received a similar article prior to its review. I think the difference here was just that my review was negative in this case. Again, apologies if this struck anyone as odd. I'll keep it in mind for similar occasions in the future.

The agent's last name is "Remington?" Interesting...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remington_Steele

Well, it's a worthy show to pay homage to if that was indeed the intent.

While I've never played the game, I'm intrigued by the concept. Also, your agent can be a man or a woman according to GoG's description, so kudos for gender equality. I might have to give this a go sometime. I grew up playing old DOS games, so I like to think I have a reasonable tolerance level for somewhat clunky design and gameplay.

StewShearer:
Ah, I see. Well, that mostly just supposed to be a news story about the game's release. I popped in something about the review because, well, why not? That said, I apologize for any confusion.

That wasn't really the problem. Your colleagues that previously reviewed the games played it up a fair bit:

IanDavis:

Come back next Saturday where we'll be continuing Sid Meier month with another game that we can't really talk about just yet.

Fanghawk:

Due to some changes in GOG's scheduling, we had to postpone the review of the mystery game promised last week. Come back next week when its identity will finally be revealed.

And after that it's just a bit of a let-down when the review of this mysterious surprise game is basically: "This really isn't good. Don't buy it, don't play it."

So, I guess I got a bit affected by anticipation. Not your fault, I should have been more sceptical of journalism and hype I guess.
Good job getting me interested in this dull game though. Just wish it was a bit better and came with a recommendation.

 

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