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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Curve Digital
Developer: Kuju
Release Date: Nov. 19, 2019


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PC Review - 'Narcos: Rise of the Cartels'

by Cody Medellin on Dec. 19, 2019 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels chronicles the true-life rise to power of drug lords and the explosion of cocaine trafficking in the world.

With Netflix doling out popular movies and TV shows at a very rapid rate, it was only a matter of time before its properties became licensed games. That's already happened with the mobile platforms, since those can be developed quickly, but it takes more time to create proper console and PC games. Of those properties, "Narcos" isn't the first to spring to mind as good video game fodder, but here we are with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. Additionally, the game takes on a genre that few licensed games attempt: turn-based strategy.

Narcos is set during the first season of the series, but knowledge of the season or the series as a whole isn't really needed to jump into the game. The early 1980s were a boon for the Columbian economy, which was largely supported by the cocaine trade. The unfortunate side effect was that the country was constantly involved in wars between the local cartels that ran the drug trade. As more American money was used to buy cocaine in large amounts, the U.S. government became more interested in directly stopping cartel activity. Players take on the role of a member of the DEA who's working with the Colombian police and military. It's your job to stem the drug trade, starting with El Patron.

If you're trying to use this game to get an overview of the first season of the series, forget about it. The game may feature some clips from the show in its cut scenes, but they're window dressing, not a storyline. The same goes for the game's own cut scenes, which show generic shots of actions rather than anything significant. This is for both sides, DEA and Narcos, so anyone looking for some narrative will be very disappointed.

After choosing either the DEA side or the Narcos side, you'll find that the core game mechanics are the same as other turn-based strategy titles. Each side gets a chance to move its units into position within a set range and attack before repeating the process. In lieu of spells, you can reload your gun, since your attacks depend on having a loaded weapon on hand. You can choose to rest to regain one unit of health or, if your class can do it, use a health pack to recover more hit points.

Completing missions gives you the chance to level up your existing units with more perks, like an instant reload after every kill or the chance to increase movement range. Damage taken during missions is persistent, however, and permadeath is always on, which makes every unit expendable except for the characters plucked directly from the show. Lost units can be replaced with new recruits, but that costs cash, and since some missions require a fee before you can even attempt them, you'll be conditioned to keep casualties to a minimum. Since you can't save in the middle of a mission, you'll be forced to restart the whole thing if you make a mistake.

Narcos features a few mechanics that play around with genre norms. The first is the ability to initiate a final attack immediately after a move that whittles down an enemy's health to one bar. The other is the ability to bank unused moves or give those moves to other units to initiate what is referred to here as a "counterattack," where your unit can open fire on a passing enemy in the line of sight. In both cases, the game gives you control of the unit and lets you manually aim and fire rounds while everything plays out in slow motion. It makes the traditionally passive genre feel a bit more active, and it's a good way to engage casual strategy game fans.

All of the above sounds like some decent building blocks for a basic strategy game, and the dual questlines mean that the game is quite lengthy, which makes up for the lack of random skirmishes and multiplayer. However, the title stumbles on a number of things. Narcos controls much better with a keyboard and mouse combo rather than a standard controller, despite the fact that this game was also made with consoles in mind. For some reason, the title is quite finicky when it comes to moving the cursor on the grid, so it's a huge chore to get your character to a specific spot, since the cursor has a tendency to stick to the wrong spot if you're trying to nudge it one square over. The controls are also questionable when you get the chance to use the counteract or killshot mechanic. Instead of using the right analog stick for aiming like other console shooters would, you're asked to use the left analog stick. That choice throws you off guard, especially since the keyboard-mouse combo lets you use the more familiar mouse to handle this action.

The game is also stingy when it comes to variety. There aren't too many classes on either side, so that is a positive for casual players, but while you expect those classes to have the same uniforms on the DEA side, utilizing a few different faces would've gone a long way to making each unit look more distinct. This is more noticeable with the units on the Narcos side, which only has a few clothing combinations and faces. Environments get recycled often, and the lack of procedural generation means that you know exactly what your strategy is the moment you jump into that environment for a second time. The missions also boil down to either personnel retrieval, document retrieval, or wiping out enemy forces. Considering how interesting the show gets, the repetition of these goals makes the affair far less exciting.

The biggest change — and the deciding factor in terms of whether or not people will accept the game — comes down to the strategy mechanics. Whereas most titles have you choosing to move all of your units at once before letting the enemy do the same, Narcos only has you move one unit at a time per turn. For example, you can move your police officer into position and attack before your enemy takes their turn to rest up and reload weapons. It emulates something like Worms, but instead of forcing you to cycle through all of your units, you can stick with one unit for however long you want.

The change to the traditional genre mechanics may seem like a good move to help the title differentiate itself from the competition, but it exposes more flaws instead. Using your teammates feels like an afterthought, as it takes so long to put everyone into position that you'll likely lose a party member or two in the process of getting the enemy into a flankable state. Enemy AI is such that they'll attack once, back away, and spend every move reloading guns and resting to full health before repeating the tactic with the same character. By proxy, you'll do the same thing simply because it works so well, negating the need to try another method. Until you get to the point where you have two starting areas, you'll simply stick with one character and leave everyone behind, making this less of a strategy game and more of a turn-based action game.

The presentation stands as a stark reminder of some of the pitfalls of licensed games. The character models don't look close to what's expected from an Unreal Engine game, which isn't a good look when you get close-up shots during attack sequences. It becomes an even bigger oddity once you see the same models being used in the FMV cut scenes, as the game starts to look like it came out of the early PS3 era. That feeling is amplified once you see characters move awkwardly, so the only solace gained from the graphics is the ability to play it at a locked 60fps. Meanwhile, while the music is serviceable and the sound effects are simply good enough, the voices come off poorly since everything seems to have a hollow echo effect, which is reminiscent of the original release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night — minus the inherent charm.

Your enjoyment of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is going to be heavily based on whether you can accept its strategy game conceit. If you're good with the idea of only being able to control one unit at a time per turn, then you might be fine so long as you're also willing to accept the inherent lack of strategy that goes along with the very limited objective set. If you want your strategy games to be a little more traditional, where every unit can do something on a turn, then you'll hate this game to the point that even the counteract mechanic can't make things interesting. In short, Narcos is a hard sell for fans of the series, let alone strategy game fans, unless you can find it for a very deep discount.

Score: 5.0/10

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