Covert Action


Title           Covert Action
Game Type	Action Strategy
Players		1
Compatibility	Any Amigas with 1 Mb RAM
HD Installable  Yes
Company		MicroProse
Submission      Seppo Typpö (groucho@pp.inet.fi) Profiled Reviewer

Review
While most people involved with computer games know Sid Meier from
classics like "Pirates!" and "Civilization", he has made a number of
games which, while not achieving the same success as the aforementioned
masterpieces, carry the same compulsive gameplay and addictiveness that
are trademarks for this game-design genius. One of these games is Covert
Action, a 'spy simulation' that successfully evaded the headlines when it
was released.

Covert Action puts the player in the shoes of a CIA agent - which at first
does not sound as glamorous a job as working for Her Majesty's Secret
Service. It is not as bad as it sounds, though - the player gets to
perform many James Bond like tasks which put both his (or her) wits as well
as action hero skills to the test.

After a short intro the player can choose from three options - start a new
career, continue an old game or practice a skill. There are fours skills
that can be honed to perfection - Combat, Driving, Cryptography and
Electronics (more about these later). The practice option is really handy
 - it allows the player to train on each difficulty level which means the
player can prepare for the harder subgames before actually encountering
them in the game proper.

Once you have selected a new game and your sex (you can be either a female
or a male spy) the game allows you to select from four difficulty levels.
This selection  has an effect on many different things - the scale of the
conflict, the quality of your enemies, the difficulty level of the four
subgames and so on. For a beginner, it is best to start at the lowest
level and learn the skills of successful spying before moving to higher
levels.

The next step in the menu is 'agent training'. Here the game introduces
one of its finest features. Some of us like to run towards danger
with guns blazing and leave the technical stuff to nerds. Some of us want
to tinker with electronics and other stuff requiring intelligence, and
leave all the running to the neanderthals. In agent training it is
possible to fine tune your character and enchance your weak areas. This
makes combat slightly easier for the nerds and decrypting secret messages
less difficult for the neanderthals. For example, if the player feels he
can decrypt messages and wiretap phones without help he can (with agent
training) crank up his skills in driving and combat, making those slightly
easier to tackle.

After agent training it is time to report to the boss who looks a lot like
a certain former Soviet Union leader. This is the guy who assigns you on
missions as well as debriefing you after it is over. Every mission starts
and ends at his  office, so it is worth listening to what he has to say.

There are two primary goals in Covert Action - to prevent crime on each
mission and arrest all 26 masterminds behind the crimes. This is done by
collecting hard evidence and arresting all criminals one by one. This
sounds easier than it is, because, while you (the player) are aware of the
bad guys, they are also aware  of you. They go into hiding if you give
them the slightest reason to believe you are after them, and in some cases
might even come after you if you make too much of a nuisance of yourself.
In harder levels they also try  to free their comrades in crime - which
opens up another subgame, where the player (as a jail warden) tries to
stop the jailbreak.

To be able to arrest the criminals the player needs to gather enough
evidence. There are several methods to achieve this - once the player has
pinpointed some possible suspects he (or she) might want to break into
their headquarters to get some 'smoking gun evidence' or start a wide
scale electronic intelligence operation for a more subtle approach. The
player can also follow the suspects by car in order to find their possible
accomplices.

Breaking into right buildings is the fastest way to gather information -
it is also the 'noisiest' one as it alerts the criminals more readily.
Once the player has selected suitable gear (like a camera and safe
cracking kit) he (or she) enters the building and starts to search for
information (or known wanted suspects) room by room. This subgame offers a
top-down view of the building with plenty of rooms filled with believable
furniture - there are bathrooms with sinks and toilets, computer rooms
with mainframes, office rooms with desks etc. Furniture can be used for
hiding from enemy agents which patrol around the building - the longer you
remain undetected, the better.

The gameplay in this subgame is best described a mixture of Impossible
Mission and Alien Breed games. Each building has a unique layout which is
auto-mapped once the player progresses further into the building.
Sneaking around, checking out filing cabinets and safes, collecting bits of
passwords which you can use to hack into computers that lie around offices
while evading the guards is an intense experience. Part of the charm of
the game lies here - can you make it through the whole break-in mission
undetected?

If you are detected (or if you are picking up some important suspect from
their hideout) the sneaking turns into a full frontal assault with Uzis,
flash bombs, gas grenades and other weaponry. Since the player is heavily
outnumbered, some combat tactics are needed - like using gas grenades to
screen the getaway route, setting booby-traps to slow down the enemy,
sniping the opposition from  behind the furniture etc. The higher the
difficulty level the smarter the opponents are, and the more likely to use
the same tactics on you. The best option when you enter the enemy lair is
to get a disguise, move around undetected (covering your tracks) and when
necessary, strike fast and get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

The electronic surveillance approach offers a more covert (if slower) way
of gathering evidence. Tapping the phones, and installing tracking devices
to cars, open up another subgame where the player needs to rewire some
microchips in a circuit board without causing the alarm to go off. To make
things more difficult there is a time limit, the length of which depends
on the enemy's awareness level. The complexity of the circuit board
depends on the general difficulty level - the practise option mentioned
before is extremely useful in learning the wiretapping process properly.
If successful, the player can obtain important messages and other useful
information, and in the case of installing the car tracking devices (which
uses the same subgame), the location of new enemy hideouts can be
revealed, while the player remains completely undetected.

On the subject of the messages that the player can intercept during
electronic surveillance - they are usually encrypted so the player has to
decrypt them before the information is actually revealed. This leads to
another subgame; code breaking. This is easier than it at first sounds -
the player simply tries to figure out which letter is replaced by another
letter. The time is running however while the player works on the message
which means valuable time is lost if decrypting takes too long a time.

The fourth subgame is driving, which is probably the dullest of the four.
A top down view is once again offered, and the aim is to either follow the
subject while remaining undetected, or to try to catch the bad guy by
driving them off the road. Sometimes the roles change and the player finds
himself in the white rabbit suit, trying to evade the pursuers. James
Daniels' "Payback" this is not - the graphics are way too simple and the
whole thing is a bit uninspiring when compared to the other subgames.

Covert Action offers tremendous lastability. It will take time to
apprehend all the masterminds, as each mission can easily take an hour or
so to complete, and you need to play plenty of missions before the final
crook is behind bars.

The difficulty levels offer continuing challenge too - when the player
thinks he has mastered the game and moves to a higher difficulty level,
the game suddenly introduces new gameplay features and cranks up the
difficulty level of the subgames too - providing new problems for the
player to solve.

Probably the best part of the game is the freedom of choice it gives to
the player. After the mission is started you are given a free hand on
how to proceed and a free choice to use any combination of skills you have
to get the job done. Allthough the game gently pushes the player in the
right direction (with the introduction of a redheaded assistant who
sometimes offers useful advice) it is up to the player to choose the
strategy which not only prevents the crimes but also bags the maximum
number of the criminals.

There's a possibilty to turn enemy operatives into double agents, but
the player's own organisation is not invulnerable to such attacks either.
There's usually a double agent or two running loose inside the CIA, which
means not all the information should be believed . This adds some spice to
the action in the higher difficulty levels, and the player has to
think carefully whether the clues he gets are valid or just part of a
smoke screen the criminals are using. It is possible for the player to
discover and apprehend these 'moles', too.

The attention to detail this game offers is astonishing. Everything
happens in realtime - everything the player does (travelling, code
cracking, break-ins, stake-outs) all take their time. There's only a
certain amount of time allowed to prevent the crime, so the player has to
plan their actions carefully.

While the gameplay is excellent, the audio and visual aspects of the game
are best described as functional. The graphics are clear but simple, and
the sound effects do their job only adequately. The animation of the main
character and the enemies is pretty fluid but the whole thing has a
certain 8-bit feel to it (no surprise here as the game was originally
pencilled to appear on computers like the Commodore 64).

In conclusion, Covert Action is a hidden gem. Like in many Sid Meier
games, the extremely well designed gameplay takes the lead role and the
graphics and sound only exist to support it. As with  "Civilization" and
"Pirates!" it is quite easy to waste hours playing this game, preventing
the hideous crimes and tracking down those devious masterminds. The game
looks old-fashioned, but in these times of flashy first-person-shooters,
it still offers a refreshing breath from the past where games were games,
game designers were gods and the player was king.






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