October is a big month for James Bond as he celebrates 50 years on the big screen since his debut in London on October 5th, 1962. As a big Bond fan, I’ve done my small part in writing up an overview on some of his games over on Bitmob which covers titles from the eighties up through this month with 007 Legends which releases on the 16th. Eurocom, the devs behind the remake of the classic, GoldenEye, will be tying together a number of Bond’s famous films such as Moonraker into an arc that takes players into the most action-packed set pieces from each.
But Bond isn’t the only big name in the spy biz. Gaming has always had a taste for espionage whether it was stirred with stealth or shaken with bullets and it was one of gaming’s own legends, Sid Meier, who would accept his own mission in making a title that made super spies out of everyone. The game was Covert Action released in 1990 for DOS with an Amiga version following the next year.
Sid Meier isn’t a name that you’d normally associate with a game like this since most of his work has often been focused on sims whether it was a flight-sim such as Hellcate Ace in 1982 or something as vast as Civilization in 1991. Covert Action is well off the beaten sim path for the designer, though even this has nuggets of his sim science worked into every byte.
In a rare option for the time in a game like this, players could pick to play either gender and save the world. Covert Action casts players into the role of Maximilian or Maxine. In the game, you were simply “Max” Remington. So that’s not necessarily a “Bond” girl next to the guy in the ad or the box cover.
The game’s manual was thick with detail and plenty of fiction heading each section as was typical for gaming documentation back then. It explained your role as the greatest agent in the world and the mission ahead of you – to capture 26 masterminds, the secret leaders of the criminal organizations that you have to dismantle first before you can even find the first clues on who or where they might even be. Fictional vignettes introduced many of the sections and the back half even contained plenty of info on the criminal organizations you would be facing who ranged from the Muslim Jihad to the Mafia.
Decoding secret messages, tapping phones, and car chases via an overhead view were all part of your work in trying to find the clues needed to capture and arrest suspects. Players could travel the world, visit locations in fifty cities on three continents, and gear up for a break-in to install some spy gear or go in with tear gas and battle their way through. They might even be busted on their way in meaning that they have to fight their way out or be captured instead.
Covert Action’s diverse gameplay made it a hit with many players. It offered a distinctly “super spy” approach from a fictional perspective and the actual mechanics and the random missions generated with every game ensured that no two pursuits were similar. It’s a formula that ensured hours of replayability. Each of the mini-challenges whether it was switching chips on a board to successfully tap a phone, breaking into a building without being detected, knocking out a guard to get a convenient disguise, or fighting it out in an office also encapsulated the high-wire spy work in fun ways.
The range of activities in the game and the sandbox approach it gave players on how they can approach their objectives and find the clues they need to nail the bad guys was one of its best features. It even had a skill system that you could practice up prior to starting the game to make certain sections a bit easier, such decryption or electronics. There was even a practice mode to get a handle on topics such as driving and combat before you began your career.
Unfortunately, like many much older PC games, Covert Action never saw a remake in today’s market. Nor was it revived on any of the digital download services. Instead, it’s under the vague heading of abandonware. It’s really too bad.
Difficulty levels, a scoring system that tallied your performance after each mission, and the quest for a peaceful retirement by capturing all of the masterminds – or sleeping things away at your hotel to see whether or not your work has stopped them or not up to a certain point – made Covert Action’s approach to espionage amazingly diverse. It’s granular design reflects the approach of a more recent spy game twenty years later that tried to buck the trend of action-packed espionage: Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol.
Covert Action was, in many ways, a fantastic approach that few seemed to want to take with the genre. It boldly snatched the topic of espionage away from the action-heavy antics of Bond’s own series of adventures and into something that wasn’t quite so serious. But at the same time, challenging enough to be a fine “sim” from the master of the genre.