Video Game: Covert Action

A game released in 1990. The player is Max Remington, a "freelance" spy. Following authority only when it suits him/her, he/she works for various Western agencies and is permitted to operate because he/she is very, very good at espionage. Max Remington does respect some authority though: he/she will always take a case at the direct request of the American President. With new threats appearing all over the world, the President is making a lot of such requests for Max to work for the CIA. As Max Remington, the player will solve these cases and foil international terrorist plots before they happen. —Or, fail horribly.

A game by Sid Meier, who, these days, regrets it a bit, as it contains two reasonably good but very very different games in it. In Sid's words, the shift between the two works against the overall experience - by the time you finish a particular task in one of the two games, you've forgotten what you were trying to do in the other.

Half of it is reminiscent of a complicated, adult Carmen Sandiego game, where the player flies from city to city, finding secret agents, tracking down enemy organizations, following cars, and the like, all from a partially-menu-based, partially-mini-game-based interface. Once the player discovers a need to break into enemy offices, though, the game switches gears entirely, and becomes a top-down sneaker - a Stealth-Based Game seen from the ceiling. The player can assault guards head-on with grenades, and even win, but it would alarm opponents so much that suspects run away and hide in holes like cockroaches, and the objective is arresting suspects while having solid proof on hands. So hiding behind the furniture, using knockout gas (and planting gas grenades as traps, for that matter) and Dressing as the Enemy is the only way to win on higher levels.

This game shows examples of the following Tropes:
  • Artistic License Geography: The game has a wide assortment of locales, but apparently it's possible to take a direct nonstop flight from anywhere in the world to any other part of the world, with no stops to refuel the plane needed.
  • Awesome McCoolname: The agent you are playing is named Maximilian Remington (or Maxine, if female), which sounds incredibly badass.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Have a look at one of the many Let's Play for this game and you'll see some strange building layouts, though the badly laid out bathrooms really take the cake.
  • Critical Existence Failure: Getting hit 4 times (2 times without armor) results in an automatic knockout, and loss of time. You can take any number of hits less than that and have no penalty other than the time needed to recover from the wounds afterwards, which is negated by successfully arresting (or turning) an agent.
  • Caper Crew: It requires the Player Character to uncover criminal plans — that is, who participates and what exactly they are supposed to do — and upon collecting full incriminating information either arrest them or blackmail into cooperation. Roles other than Mastermind vary depending on which of 13 basic plots is used — there are Inside Contact, Middleman, Courier, Driver, Mercenary, Kidnapper, Researcher, Alarm Specialist, Thief, Assassin and so on.
  • Da Chief: He briefs you on your mission. He also wraps up the case. If you succeeded, he says things like: "You've earned the respect of me and my staff," or "The President is feeling pretty smug about insisting we hire you." If you fail, he scolds you. If you fail really badly... he gently attempts to cheer you up.
    The Chief: I'm sure you did the best you could.
  • Difficulty Levels: Effectively five different difficulty settings are set. The master one is the difficulty used for the storyline and the base difficulty for the other four difficulty settings, which are calculated by the master difficulty adjusted by the points put into a skill; an "Average" rating means that section is more difficult, "Good" being equal to that difficulty, and additional points reducing difficulty for that minigame.
    • However, if the master difficulty at Local Disturbance, then the minigames will also be easiest as well even if you don't invest skill points. Likewise, Global Crisis doesn't detect differences between "Average" and "Good" skills, but you won't be able to bring a minigame difficulty down to Local Disturbance. Regardless, maxing out one of the skills makes the game much easier in that aspect.
  • Dump Stat:
    • Cryptography skill is of dubious usefulness. Solving the puzzles does reveal the sender and recipient's organization and their roles in the plot, but messages are more rarely intercepted on harder difficulty levels, and all information is abundant on easier difficulties. It might happen that you'll never learn what a message says, but most of the time, you won't need the decoded message in the first place.
    • Driving is never voluntarily needed. You never need to stake out a house and follow someone via driving, and can plant a tracer for the same effect, using electronics skill. Driving can also be used to make an arrest, but breaking in is usually better overall. However, if you set off an alarm, you may end up needing the skill to evade hitmen chasing after you.
    • Electronics skill doesn't give you more or less time to figure out the puzzle, it just makes the puzzle pieces a little less complex. The mini-game is easy even at the hardest difficulty.
  • Fake Difficulty: The combat stages on higher difficulty. There's more guards, and they throw more grenades, which is fair. However, the amount of time it takes them to fire their weapon after spotting you is extremely reduced, as well as the time it takes them to fire again after their first shot. It also takes your character more time to fire their weapon. On top of this, your accuracy is lessened and the enemy's accuracy is increased. The only way to proceed in the combat missions on higher difficulty is to either hide, use smoke grenades like crazy, or only try to fire at enemies when you're directly behind them.
  • Guide Dang It: Figuring out how to reach some of the organization hideouts is rather tricky, as in some cases you'll have to do wiretaps and break-ins on organizations that are not associates or allies to slowly work your way towards the organization you need to get to. Reading activity and relations reports sometimes allows you to "procure" useful information even before getting to the plane.
    • Topping it all off is that each game is randomized, making any step-by-step guide useless.
  • Hacking Minigame:
    • The electronics minigame requires you to hack into a circuit board by swapping chips around, and is used for wiretapping telephone lines or planting a car tracer. Even if not directly related to computers, it still follows the spirit of the trope.
    • When you break into a building, you can collect letters for a password from terminals, then guess the password to gain information.
  • Idiosyncratic Difficulty Levels: Local Disturbance, National Threat, Regional Conflict, Global Crisis. Technically, everything takes place within a region, with the names just showing how difficult it is to solve the case (e.g. harder to crack stuff, etc.) Difficulty levels also have the cosmetic effect of altering what the cases will be about, which fits the descriptions. While on low difficulty the enemy might be just trying to get someone into the country with forged passports, at the top level you will deal with such threats as a new spy satellite falling under enemy control.
  • Luck-Based Mission: in spades.
    • The timing of the various actions taken by the people involved with the plan is random, though certain actions require other actions to be done first.
    • Getting your hands on the mastermind behind a plot on the first plot depends on you successfully getting enough information fast enough to determine the mastermind's name, appearance, role, location, and group. They also have a tendency to go into hiding less than 48 hours after the start of your work on a crime, in some cases less than 24 hours.
    • Turning an agent requires a lot of luck, as the following things must occur:
      • The agent must still be able to do their job before being turned (I.E. the agents they depend on must not be arrested or in hiding)
      • You must be able to arrest the agent (revealed their role in the plot)
      • The agent's location must have floor safes.
      • You must bring the safe cracker when breaking into their building so that you can open the floor safes.
      • You must find "incriminating evidence" before reaching and arresting the agent. These only appear in floor safes, and they can only be obtained and used in the same break-in that you arrest the agent.
  • One Stat to Rule Them All: By far, the Combat minigame will be the source of most of your clues, is the primary way to arrest criminals, and is the only way to turn criminals. Even with the skill maxed, Combat on higher difficulties is unforgiving, especially when assaulting a Mastermind's hideout.
  • Pride Before a Fall: If you play on Local Disturbance, one of the criminals is always located in Washington, and is always part of an organization that created a relevant clue. It is a message sent directly by the mastermind, saying that he/she has heard that Max Remington is working on the case, but is not at all worried. Somehow, the CIA immediately knows that "a criminal mastermind" sent that message despite no other clues.
  • Prisoner Exchange: If you get captured, you can exchange yourself with someone that you arrested. If you haven't arrested anyone, you instead have to deal with two double agents in the organization.
  • Save Scumming: This is pretty much the only reliable way to break 1000 efficiency points.
  • Spy Fiction: But of course.
  • Stalking Mission: The driving minigame requires you to follow a vehicle - over time, the target becomes suspicious of the two following cars and tries to break pursuit by accelerating and randomly turning.
  • Take That: The Mafia (yes, the Italian Mafia) has the CIA listed as one of its allies on the information screen.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: In the real world, some of the game's organizations dissolved shortly after the game's release, such as the Stassi/Stasi (1990) and KGB (1992). Of course, the real CIA was also not fielding super agents to singlehandedly dismantle criminal empires in 1990.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Guards will ignore the dead bodies of their comrades or gas grenades detonating at their feet, and will turn off an alarm if Max has been able to hide for a while. On higher difficulties, they are difficult mostly because of Zerg Rush numerical superiority and the use of stun grenades.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: You can break into MI6 (British intelligence) and Mossad (Israeli intelligence) offices just to mess with the guards for no reason. There are legitimate reasons to break in (to arrest an inside contact or find info about hideouts), but you are never punished for causing trouble for a CIA 'ally' if you just mess around.