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“Sid Meier’s Covert Action” is a Clunky Masterpiece

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We’re going to hold off on more American Horror Story this week, both because I need some more time to formulate my ideas and because something else is on my mind right now.

The last couple days I’ve been playing a lot of Sid Meier’s Covert Action. If you’ve never heard of it I don’t blame you, the game is older than I am. Now, let me be clear: This is not a game that I played in my childhood. I played this game for the first time about 2 years ago. I also have no love for games of this age, and in fact, generally speaking, I loathe most games that were made prior to about 1995. So take that into consideration when I say this:

Sid Meier’s Covert Action is fucking awesome.

Covert ActioCovert Actionn is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. Except that some of the pieces in front of you are for a different, unrelated jigsaw puzzle, and also the puzzle pieces can think and every single one of them hates you. And the picture is of the ocean. From the air.

So in the game you play an American James Bond knockoff named Max Remington (Gender determined by the player) trying to solve procedurally-generated international crime. There’s probably a dozen different crime organizations from around the world that can all get up to some sneaky shit and try to hatch nefarious plots, and you’re the only one – literally the only one – who can stop them.

So you go around the world gathering evidence against certain suspects until you have enough to break Covert Action 2into their house and arrest them at gunpoint. Arrest them without enough evidence? They walk free and you’re fucked. Take too long gathering evidence? Then their plan goes off without a hitch and you’re fucked. Arrest some people but not enough people or the unimportant people? Then their plan goes off anyway and, guess what, you’re fucked. The game tells you you suck. Be better at your goddamn job.

As you might have guessed from my tone, Covert Action does not fuck around. On the higher difficulties this game is hard bordering on unfair. But guess what? So is being James Bond. Consider this scenario:

At the start of the game you’re told that members of the Italian Mafia are planning to assassinate a US dignitary. The game then tells you, “Here’s all the clues that we think might be relevant to this case.”

‘Might.’ Remember that word.

So the game says, “A white Toyota Tercell was stolen in Los Angeles this morning.”

That’s the only clue you’re given. So what do you do? Fly to Los Angeles.

The only criminal hideout you’re aware of in Los Angeles belongs to the Haitian Junta, but crime people tend to hang out, right? So you go to the Junta base and you plant a wiretap on their phone and you sneak in and photograph all their files and get a lot of information about a hacker named Jeff.

As you’re leaving the house you get a page that the CIA has picked up on an illegal sniper rifle sale in Berlin.

So you hop on a plane to Berlin which takes like 17 hours and you blow down all these doors in Berlin and arrest the hacker named Jeff who happens to be there because why not. He goes to jail.

After arresting Jeff you hear word that “Agent X” was spotted in Beijing. So you fly to Beijing.

As you land in Beijing you receive a third page that an American dignitary in New York has been shot at long range with a sniper rifle. You’re fucked. Good job.

Now, you might be reading that and going, “Wait a second, none of the clues you got were at all relevant to the case.” And you’d be absolutely right. Because sometimes that just happens, because this game is like a mother gazelle on the Serengeti. You’re born, and if you can’t run in the first fifteen seconds of your life then you’re food. Tough shit. Life is hard and your dog is dead.

Then here’s the best part: The game will present you with another case and they’ll say the thing about the clues again and you’ll get this:

“Three days ago a white Toyota Tercell was stolen in Los Angeles.”


With it being this hard you feel so accomplished when you actually do anything of value. Sometimes you’ll come within minutes of arresting the “Big Bad Mastermind” behind the whole thing and they’ll escape by the skin of their teeth. Then, hours later you’ll find them in Prague doing something completely unrelated and arrest them and it feels so good. I’ve been triumphantly yelling at my screen all week.

The only thing negative I have to say about this game is that trying to control it is like trying to ride a bull that’s been kicked in the balls. See, Covert Action was made in 1990 before control schemes were standardized. Movement is done using the Num pad. Most vital actions are completed with either the Enter key or one of the F-keys. But not the same F-key. Want to plant a bug behind a picture frame? That’s F1. Want to photograph some files? That’s F2. Want to try to learn a letter of a password to hack a computer? Well, that’s Enter. Want to try to guess the password using the letters you already know? Well guess what? That’s F4. Why? BECAUSE NOT EVERYTHING IN LIFE SHOULD BE HANDED TO YOU. GET A JOB YOU GODDAMN DISGRACE.

I’m not going to make any comments about the state of games today or from yesteryear. All I’ll say is that Sid Meier’s Covert Action is great and it’s $1.50 (Yes, less than two dollars) on GOG right now and you owe it to yourself to give it a chance if you’re even a little bit interested.

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"Sid Meier's Covert Action" is a Clunky Masterpiece
Scott takes a break from season six of American Horror Story to play some old video games.

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