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The Narcos game is more adventurous than I expected of a Netflix adaptation

(Image credit: Curve)

Netflix’s push into games continues this month with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, which publisher Curve Digital has today announced will release on 19 November. Based on drug war drama Narcos, the game translates the show's action into a cops-vs-gangs turn-based strategy campaign.

I recently got the chance to play a near-final build, and was pleasantly surprised to discover something rather more adventurous than you might expect from a TV adaptation. On the surface, it has the look of a straightforward XCOM clone: you build a stable of soldiers, send squads out on missions, and control them in small-scale battles with tough odds and permadeath. But rather than a typical turn order—you move all your guys, then the enemy moves all theirs—it has alternating activations, similar to many modern tabletop wargames. In other words, every time you do something, your foe immediately gets to do something in response.

Not only that, but on your turn you can activate anyone you like—it doesn’t matter how many times they’ve already moved. Theoretically, you can just pick your favourite soldier over and over, fighting a one-man war against the cartels.

That’s where the strategy comes in, though, and it’s a surprisingly different challenge to most turn-based games. Focus too much on one character, and they’ll quickly find themselves surrounded, but equally every time you activate a straggler to catch them up, you’re leaving your frontline motionless and potentially vulnerable. In the XCOM games, despite their tight difficulty, there’s always a share of undramatic actions—creeping this guy a couple of squares forward, telling this one to just hunker down and wait. In Narcos, there’s a tension in every turn. 

Make a mistake, and you’ve no chance to compensate with the rest of your team—the enemy is going to take advantage immediately. And that cascades through the mission, with every turn spent retreating an accidentally vulnerable soldier into better cover being a lost turn of shooting from someone else, or a chance for your opposition to reposition.

To be clear, it’s not tactical perfection. The drug war set-up makes for a relatively dry theme for anyone not a fan of the show, and there’s a general lack of polish that leaves no doubt this is a budget title. But I left my demo intrigued to play around more with that core twist, and the promise of a story campaign that can be played in full from either side—DEA or druglords—is pleasingly ambitious. Don’t expect white gold, then, but I'm hopeful for at least beige silver.