Netflix’s Colombian based series Narcos has run for three seasons so far and presents a dramatised version of the life of Pablo Escobar and his dealings with the DEA at the height of the drug war in the 1980’s. Proving massively successful and spinning off into other shared world series, it’s no surprise that the videogame market is being explored. Violence, drama, power, money and strong accents… it’s perfect fodder. What Gaumont Games, Kuju and Curve Digital are bringing to the masses in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is something that’s a bit different from what you might expect. Those thinking that this is going to be a Scarface/GTA style affair coated in more cocaine than you can wave a £50 note at are in for a bit of a surprise.
TV series tie-in games are typically released in the mobile space and usually go way under the radar. Avoiding that, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a full console and PC release which means it needed to have a little more to it than your average portable time filler. It leverages the war on drugs as the main story driver and has El Patron facing off against the DEA in various turn-based combat scenarios. It’s not far wrong to say it’s X-COM in the jungle, and in Spanish, as fixed space maps are populated by squads of fighters that move and shoot one at a time to get to the objective. Keeping things interesting, you’re able to play as either side to run through different campaigns depending on which side of the law your preference lies. Are you a crusading lawman wanting to rid the world of Bolivian marching powder? Or do you want to swim in a pool full of drug money?
Missions are broken up into finite area single maps with at least one objective to complete, and you’ve the choice of how many units you want to send in, up to a maximum of five. As you’d expect, there are various different classes defined by the default skill set they have, and the weapon they carry. Pistol, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, grenade launchers and superbly devastating shotguns are what there is to work with, and knowing what the mission requires alongside the type of environment determines which combos work best. Not that there’s much from the briefings that might give clues, there’s a definite trial and error approach, even though that might be counterproductive. Completing a mission and having units die will get you through, but they’re gone forever and will need replacing… which costs cash. Fail a mission and it reverts back to the status before the first attempt and there’s the chance to switch up the squad based on what you’ve learned.
Methodically tackling the scenario is always the best way to court success, and planning several moves ahead becomes essential. Each unit can move once and shoot once, so figuring out cover, choke points and vulnerability becomes key to managing not only taking out the enemy, but keeping your own men healthy. With the ability to recover health points at the expense of movement, there’s a risk/reward element to the decision making, and in many cases just shooting through is not a viable option. It might also not be the easiest way to get the objectives done – some tasks are collecting intel, some assassinating a particular target, and even the dreaded escort mission. These aren’t fun in any game, and more so in turn-based tactical shooters where the person needing to be protected has all the vitality of mouldy lettuce. This does more to highlight the lack of available mission prep as it’s very easy to get caught short and end up having to attempt it all over again.
It might be alternate goes for you and the AI in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, but there are some more interactive bits like the counteract that has you track and shoot at an enemy as they are moving around (assuming you’ve got the right number of surveillance points), and the ability to deliver a killshot if you’ve whittled down enough health in the first attempt. They’re fairly simple implementations yet bring a more dynamic feel to the rounds and liven up the pace. Each skill that squad members possess get used too, with the cooldowns on them not being too ridiculous either. Successful missions reward cash for recruiting to cover the dead and buy entry into higher reward missions; as well as individual and global points to invest in the characters so they level up and open a variety of passive and active skills. This all works really nicely and because they build up at a decent pace it’s not a total loss if one of your most invested squad members bites the dust. You just have to get over your mistakes in getting them killed and move on.
In terms of presentation, there are inter-cut sections of TV series footage used to set the scene, though without audio as that would detract from the use of stand-in voice actors. The vibe is suitably DEA/Drug Lord depending on which has been chosen (you can swap between the two by loading the campaign back up). It sounds punchy in the right areas, and the directions given, whether in English or Spanish, are clear. It’s also pretty easy to navigate and has simple tutorials that get you into the action immediately. In what feels like an effort to pad the runtime out, there are side missions that must be attempted before a main objective unlocks. With most main missions in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels offering up four side quests, only two need completing to continue, and the buy-in value will always be zero for one of whatever is remaining. The cash rewards are aiming to get you to go for more difficult missions and try and double down on what comes out, though it’s possible to not bother with that at all.
It’s actually quite easy to sum up Narcos: Rise of the Cartels because despite the low budget roots, there’s a very playable and intriguing strategy game here. It’s not trying to do anything different to others in the genre, it’s simply providing a new setting, and it works. In fact, it has a double effect as I’m now very interested in watching the show to get deeper info on how it ties in. The action is slick, the AI doesn’t take too long to decide what move it will make – often it’s brutally efficient, and there’s a generous helping of support in the form of retrying and not penalising too much for losing team members. If you like turn-based combat, you’re probably going to get on well with this. Vaya con Dios, mi amigo!
A PS4 review copy of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels was provided by Curve Digital’s PR team, and the game is out now for around £30 on PC, Xbox One, Switch and PS4.