Title Covert Action Game Type Action Strategy Players 1 Compatibility Any Amigas with 1 Mb RAM HD Installable Yes Company MicroProse Submission Seppo Typpö (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.