A Retro Review of Covert Action

A review of Covert Action as released on www.gog.com

By Avery Abernethy, 6 April 2014

Covert Action is a game of international espionage originally released by Microprose Software in 1990.  Covert Action is a classic MS-DOS computer game written by Sid Meier and his programming team.  You take the role of Max (or Maxine) Remington, a CIA trouble shooter attempting to unravel complex international criminal conspiracies from a multitude of hostile government and terrorist organizations.

My first copy of Covert Action was purchased in 1990.  I loved it and it became one of my favorite all time games.  I mourned when Microsoft stopped supporting DOS and donated my original copy of Covert Action to charity prior to moving to a new home.  I rejoiced when DOSBOX was invented which enabled people to play MS-DOS games on a modern computer systems.  This review is not based on fond memories, but on more than twenty hours of play of the www.gog.com version of Covert Action.

Each mission starts in a similar fashion.  A CIA leader at HQ warns trouble is brewing.  Briefings are often vague with a handful of clues and perhaps an indication of one of the organizations involved in the plot.  Plots include blackmailing important officials, assassinations, stealing important bits of technology, or similar cold-war era operations.  Multiple enemy groups are involved in every plot.  The mastermind works through minions who perform the nasty deeds.  Max then has lots and lots of choices with little to go on.  Max often starts unravelling the plot by placing wiretaps on organizations or individuals who may be involved.  This may yield coded messages which must be decrypted.

CA-message decoding

Break-in operations on suspected enemy locations are always necessary to locate enough clues to identify plot participants, affiliated organizations, and enemy hideouts.   The opposition uses multiple cut-outs and works in a modified cell system common in espionage.  Sometimes Max must break into groups uninvolved in the current plot to locate the hideout within a city of the suspected organization.

Max flies around the world targeting suspected organizations, their offices and their hideouts.  But the clock is always ticking.  If you spend time chasing white rabbits the plot may succeed.  Get captured on a break-in and you are beaten up and need precious time to heal.

CA-hideout choices

The game plays out as a cold war era spy story.  There is a master plot.  There are a series of mini-games which must be mastered to foil the plot.  These mini-games include code breaking word substitute codes, placing wiretaps on electronic circuit boards and a car intercept game.

CA-wiretap

 

The most important mini-game is break-ins on enemy hideouts.  Early break-ins focus on stealthy information gathering, safe cracking, and taking photos of useful information.  As plot participants are identified and their hideouts discovered, Max must also break-in to physically apprehend the never-do-wells.  There are limited equipment load-outs which can either help espionage or combat.  Max sometimes has to fight gun and grenade battles with large numbers of faceless guards.

CA-break in

I used a newish Falcon Northwest computer.  The game ran quite well on a modern system.  Game timing translated well – something that games with real-time elements can suffer from when running DOSBOX.  I suggest that players use “IBM Computer” sounds when selecting sound options.  This choice worked well for me.  Graphics and sounds are state-of-the-art 1990.  If this bothers you, you should give this game a pass.

The game locked up twice requiring restarts from a save game.  The save game convention is odd for modern gamers.  You have the option to “go to your hotel” during play.  You are allowed to save only at the hotel or when a mission is completed (or failed).  Since a single mission can easily take fifteen to thirty minutes of real time to complete, players may wish to save during the midpoint of their mission.  I would always save upon successfully completing a mission.

Covert Action is lots of fun.  It is always entertaining to nail the Marxist mastermind operating through the Haitian Junta and Red September operatives to foil the threat to democracy.  The mini-games are fun.  If you can put the pieces together, you can sometimes jump ahead in solving the terrorist plot which enables you to arrest the mastermind before they realize that you are on their trail (and go into hiding).

CA-putting together clues

 

Covert Action has multiple difficulty levels.  When you go from one difficulty level to the next the challenge increases exponentially.  You have less time to solve the message code, place the wiretap, or run down the suspect’s car.  Infiltrating enemy hideouts becomes more difficult as the number of guards and alarms increases.  Guards also fight better making it harder to escape capture via a shootout.  The challenge at the higher difficulty levels gives the gamer a real sense of accomplishment if they are able to foil the kidnapping attempt or prevent the assassination of an important ally.

But gameplay is quite repetitive.  Max Remington’s tasks are harder at higher difficulty levels, but he is still doing the same things.   I keep coming back to Covert Action because the concept is novel and well executed.  But the game is too repetitive to hold most people’s interests for weeks on end.  I tend to play it intensively for several days to a week, and then put it aside for a year until the Covert Action itch strikes yet again.

CA-CIA choices

 

The www.gog.com release of Covert Action comes with a player aid card and a pdf of the 100 page manual.  Reading the manual is very helpful to successful game play. The regular price of Covert Action on www.gog.com is $6.00 and there are occasional sales.  For the price of a burger and a drink you can purchase a game which has kept many entertained for twenty-five years.  Covert Action is too repetitive to become your ultimate go-to game, but it is quite fun and nothing has ever put together these game elements in quite the same entertaining fashion.  Today I would give the game an 82 overall, a high honor for a game released almost 25 years ago.

 

Avery Abernethy is a Professor of Marketing at Auburn University.  He loves www.gog.com both for the classic games, but also because the business model provides excellent class examples.

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