Ooh blimey, it's another MicroProse game. Batten down the hatches, no phone calls please. I've got some serious reading to do. Don't you wish that once, just once, MicroProse could release a game that came with a manual less than a foot thick?
Anyway, several hours later, I've expertly deduced that Covert Action is a deep (surprise!) and complex (surprise!) simulation (surprise!) of the world of international espionage. As a top-secret trouble-shooting James Bond type employed by the CIA, your mission - should you choose to accept it, naturellement - is to stop any of twenty terrorist groups from perpetrating various terrorist-type crimes across the world. This you do by stealthily breaking into secret hideouts, cracking coded messages, following suspects, tapping phones, and all manner of sneaky spy-type stuff like that, until eventually all the bad guys and gals are banged up in the slammer (ouch!) and the world is safe for capitalist imperialist pigs everywhere once again (oops).
Okay, so the real question here is, as ever, "Is Covert Action worth the huge amount of effort you'll need to get into it?" And the answer in this case is (surprise!) "Yes". Against all my expectations, I really enjoyed this game, and found myself getting right into the feel of the whole thing, even pressing the movement keys softly when attempting a break-in, lest the noise alert the guards.
It's a level of involvement very few games achieve (Colin had a similar experience with MicroProse's Silent Service II a couple of issues ago), and it's a long time since I've fallen for it. The code-breaking section and the phone-tapping sections would make respectable puzzle games by themselves, so the fact that you can practise them individually before playing the game proper has to be seen as a real bonus. You can choose, to some extent, how complicated (i.e. difficult) you want things to be, and the manual is comprehensive and helpful if you do get stuck.
Unfortunately, not everything has been so well thought out. The keyboard layout is a ridiculous handful (arrow keys to move, spacebar to fire you fun, shift to jump, various function keys for other, crucial operations, '5' to crouch down - not too ergonomic, is it?) and if you use the joystick for movement you get in even more of a tangle. Inexplicably, though, you can only perform diagonal movements by using the stick, which is a serious handicap to keyboard control. Disk swapping, while not as bad as it might have been, is still a bit intrusive (a real shame in a game this atmospheric), and some of the trudging around office blocks in search of clues can get just a fraction tedious.
But wait - I'm not trying to put you off here. Covert Action is - perhaps more so than any MicroProse title I've seen, with the exception of the golf game also reviewed this month - a lot of fun, and it'll reward the effort you put into it more than adequately. The only blot on the horizon is the price - at £35 (just about justifiable for a top-notch flight sim, perhaps, but a real cheek for most other products!) it's certainly going to cost you enough to make you think twice. But, if this sounds like it might be your sort of thing, then don't hesitate. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a good one.
Surprisingly entertaining, varied and pacy spy sim, spoiled to an extent by some slight programming and design sloppiness. Master the controls and get used to the disk accessing, though, and you'll find yourself having a groovy time. It's not cheap though.