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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels review

A disturbingly literal war on drugs.

(Image: © Curve Digital)

Our Verdict

A mediocre XCOM-like in the form of a deeply worrying depiction of militarised police.

Need to know

What is it? XCOM clone based on the Netflix show.
Expect to pay $24/£20
Developer Kuji
Publisher Curve Digital
Reviewed on Intel i5, 16gb RAM, Nvidia GTX 1660
Multiplayer? No
Link Official site

I've only watched the first series of Narcos, but I know enough to know that it is a crime show: it features things like police work, with the DEA protagonists capturing Pablo Escobar's lieutenants, finding evidence, etc. Narcos: Rise of the Cartels contains almost none of this, and instead tries to tell the story of the Medellin Cartel exclusively through XCOM style turn based tactical combat. It makes the war on drugs a literal war.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room here: this is a fucked up way to depict police work. In the very first scene of the tutorial, the game asks the player to "bring a gang member in". This involves shooting him repeatedly because this is the only interaction that is available to you (until you unlock grenades). Occasionally missions will have objectives like "obtain some evidence" or "rescue a hostage", but just as often it's "assassinate a cartel leader".

Narcos the TV show was clearly trying to acknowledge the amoral tactics employed by the police, but Narcos the game only really does so via the fact that it contains clips from the show. The fact that you've gunned downed hundreds of people in the street over the course of the game is barely commented on. This is the peril of a 'real world' setting, it invites real world questions.

(Image credit: Curve Digital)

I'm not against depicting the drug war in a strategy game, but Rise of the Cartels doesn't really intersperse the combat sections with anything but cutscenes and levelling up your troops. It would help if there were some kind of strategy layer between missions showing the police doing actual police work (or the cartels expanding their influence), but even then there would probably be an extraordinary amount of bloodshed even for 1980s Columbia. As it is the most interesting parts of Narcos the show—Escobar's attempt at a political career or the wild card element of militant communists M-19—just don't fit within the game's narrow framework.

Playing as the Narcos makes things less morally fraught, as you are at least aware that you are definitely the bad guys, however the two campaigns are very similar. Both sides use reskinned versions of the same units, just joined together by different cutscenes and story missions.

The showcase change from the standard turn-based tactics formula is when the game quickly breaks into manually aimed modes for overwatch—called "counteract"—or 'kill shots', which offers a random chance to finish off an enemy on low health. While I can see the logic for adding them, they aren't really satisfying enough for anyone who actually wants a reaction shooter experience, and are far too intrusive for someone who wants hands-off strategy gaming. The most satisfying interactions are the comboing of various moves, which gives nearby allies extra movement, extra actions or extra overwatch shots. It was fun to build a cop/lookout unit that existed purely to run around and cheer his buddies on.

(Image credit: Curve Digital)

An unfortunate series of mechanics interact here. Every unit can heal one hitpoint a turn by not moving but, in between missions, it costs money to heal a unit up. As a result, the player is incentivised to hang back, slow play, and heal all their units to full before finishing the mission. This isn't helped by the highly defensive AI, which makes roughly the same calculation I just did and spends most of its time standing still and relying on overwatch, sometimes even neglecting to protect the objectives it is supposed to be defending. One thing that reliably gets the enemy to act aggressively is if you leave one of your men standing out of cover, leading to the bizarre strategy of intentionally exposing a sacrificial lamb as a trap to entice the enemy forwards.

There's the bane of any licensed game, an automatic game over whenever anyone who happens to star in the Netflix show gets killed.

It also has the unusual choice to do an "I go then you go" turn based system, but with no restrictions on using the same units over and over, often meaning one or two members of your team will get steadily left behind as there is no mandatory move to catch them up. Finally there's the bane of any licensed game, an automatic game over whenever anyone who happens to star in the Netflix show gets killed, a recipe for frustration.

I've spent most of the last year playing various XCOM-likes, and Narcos isn't the worst, but it isn't impressive either. More importantly there simply isn't enough variety here, once you've played a dozen missions you've seen basically all the tricks the game has, yet it expects you to continue playing with only a few new perks to keep your interest. Ultimately I found myself asking the dreaded question, "Why am I not just playing XCOM instead?"

The Verdict

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

A mediocre XCOM-like in the form of a deeply worrying depiction of militarised police.