Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is out now for almost every format, PC, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One developed by Kuju and published by Curve Digital.
The fine people at Curve Digital sent us a code for Narcos: Rise of the Cartels on the Xbox One and that was the moment I discovered the Narcos universe. I wasn’t aware of the Netflix series from which the game takes its name. Well, name, characters, settings basically everything and you’d expect no less being a licensed game.
A Licence game! I’m old enough to have gamed through the late 90’s and early 2000s when the market was swamped with awfully put together titles that clearly attempted to cash in on a beloved entertainment franchise. Due to surviving the aforementioned onslaught of mostly terrible games I wasn’t overly optimistic about Narcos: Rise of the Cartels.
The game begins and the opening video sets the scene, which was immensely useful for me as I’ve never watched a single episode of Narcos (I intend to after having played Rise of the Cartels). You’ll begin the game as the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). What’s fantastic is that Narcos RotC has 2 campaigns, one puts you in control of the DEA trying you best to take down the nefarious drug lords. The other obviously puts you into the shoes of the cartels as you attempt to expand your drug empire foiling the pesky DEA at every turn.
Narcos is a turn-based tactical strategy game. You control a squad of up to 5 characters (some from Netflix series such as Stephen Murphy). You and your foes take it in turns to activate a character of your choice one at a time. This is a departure from the usual turn-based mechanic in games of this ilk. More often than not in tactical strategy games your turn consists of ‘activating’ all your characters (attacking, moving, interacting with objectives) in turn before control passes over to your foes. Narcos approach makes it possible to ‘gank’ certain foes by focusing all your firepower in the same place. It’s almost essential for dealing with certain threats.
The characters fit into several classes, DEA agents carry a Shotgun and naturally excel up close and personal. Spec Ops soldiers who are equipped with Assault rifles and are capable of engaging foes from much further afield. Next, are the ‘police’ forces who’s weapons tend to be SMGs like the amazing MP5K, these guys are medium-range bullet hoses who spray and pray (actually the name of one of their abilities) and are capable of hitting multiple enemies with one attack activation. Pretty early on in their game, you’ll unlock demolition units, and boy, these boys pack a bunch, in fact so fearsome are their M79 grenade launchers that effective use of just one of them is damm near game-breaking.
Honestly, Demo men are so effective and keeping baddies cowering in cover that you can keep them suppressed (note that the game does not explicitly feature a suppression system) for so long that your DEA agent has his Remington 870 pressed against a thugs chest before he knows what has hit him…Justice! Slightly lower down on the powerhouse rankings are the characters equipped with pistols ( The Mf92 beretta, my favourite handgun, I mean it is the weapon of choice for John McClane), now you may be wondering why you’d take a character with such reduced power over the previously mentioned units.
Well, that’s where the games leveling up system comes into play, each class has access to a skill tree, the more combat and mission experience they gain the better they become in the field. These talents range from gaining more movement or health, to entirely special actions like taking fine aim with an M16 to ensure the criminal element don’t see another dawn.
As you invest time and resources into the characters in your squad, if your anything like me you’ll start to care about them, not as ‘characters’, mostly because anyone other than people that appear in the Netflix series is completely devoid of personality. It’s instead because they’ve become useful to you. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel anything when one of the officers is gunned down in the line of duty though, but that’s more down to my views on criminal justice than anything the game does.
After good while enjoying taking down drug-running scum I decided I should probably see how the other half live and hoped into the Cartel campaign. Being completely honest if it wasn’t for the writing of this review I’d never of bothered playing the Cartel campaign (maybe if I’d already been a fan of the series I’d feel differently). I have 0 desire to play as criminals and gun down innocent agents simply doing their job.
The Cartel campaign was my first real dose of disappointment when it came to gameplay. The game doesn’t change in any meaningful way when you switch sides. Yes, the story is, of course, different but the character classes are identical in terms of gameplay, yes they look different and are called different but that’s as far as it goes. It completely put me off the Cartel campaign and made the game feel rather lazy in this regard.
If you’re looking for a turn-based tactical strategy game it’s not like the market is flooded with them so I’d recommend picking this up as it’s a budget release. Baring it’s price point in mind however, it’s not as polished as other giants of its genre. I guess if you love the TV show Narcos: Rise of the Cartels would no doubt appeal more and I’ve bought my fair share of games because it belonged to a beloved franchise of mine, so I wouldn’t judge you for it.