Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Review – Strategy and Drugs

    Title: Narcos: Rise of the Cartels
    Developer: Kuju
    Release Date: November 19, 2019
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Curve Digital
    Genre: Turn-Based Strategy

Inspired by the successful NetFlix series of (mostly) the same name, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is one of Curve Digital’s most ambitious games. The title features characters, names, and even locations inspired by the show. You’ll follow the efforts of Agent Murphy in stopping the drug trafficking of El Patrón, a nearly impossible task with Pablo Escobar heading the business.

Although it may look like gameplay takes inspiration from popular series like XCOM, it’s more similar to the original Valkyria Chronicles. It’s already unfair to even compare styles as Narcos: Rise of the Cartels has his own identity. It mixes turn-based tactics with action in a fantastic way and creates an experience that appeals to action enthusiasts and strategy fans alike. And the result is accessible and not too complicated, so newcomers will find many reasons to keep on playing.

There are two different campaigns in the game: the Narcos and the DEA. You start with the latter but soon open both paths after a few missions. Each option has unique quests and mechanics, so while the journey is brief, getting through the entire game is fresh and doesn’t get repetitive.

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As in a turn-based strategy, players take control of five squad members but can only control one at a time. This feels like a chess game, albeit one where the pieces are on a top of a pile of cocaine. One action per turn means even small things like reloading your gun or re-positioning yourself are significant decisions. Managing your turns is critical, as one wrong move might spell the end for your current team.

Even though there’s no in-game difficulty setting, replaying the same mission twice yields additional benefits of trying different strategies and seeing what works. Skill points are earned as you progress the story and can be used to level-up each of your squad members. If any of your men die, they cannot be revived, which means used skill points are also lost. At each new level, characters can unlock traits, which are special abilities that will give you certain advantages when used correctly. These include bonuses such as increased movement points or extra ammunition for your weapon.

Even though it can be heartbreaking losing a reliable teammate, the ability to bring a new one to the team makes setbacks like that fun. Players are free to hire and retire squad members at any time, and newbies can be assigned new classes to mold the perfect team for each mission. You can choose between an Enforcer, Mercenary, Demolition, and others: the right choice can make a massive difference in the outcome of encounters. Finishing up missions also grants the player a cash reward that can be used to heal the squad, entering new paid-missions, or hoarding.

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When it comes to the gameplay itself, moving your party is both an exercise in strategy and action simultaneously. Finding cover and inspecting locations will increase your chances of success. Players can navigate freely throughout the area, and from there, locate enemies and decide the best place to deploy their team. Objects around the map can serve as cover, but you need to choose wisely. The difference between a wall that provides full protection and a barrel of sand that only provides half cover could be one of life and death.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels delivers two major, and appealing, gameplay mechanics. The first is the ability to counter-attack when an enemy is moving close by, as players gain a third-person view to aim and fire in real-time. The second is the ability to trigger a Kill-Shot, which allows players the opportunity to perform a final and deadly shot on the enemy in slow motion — obviously the perfect excuse for a headshot.

The enemy A.I, unfortunately, becomes predictable once you get far enough into the story, but this can be used as an advantage. Enemies usually retreat or search for cover when injured, while high-class targets are more offensive and unexpected. Some enemies like to surprise you with long-range attacks, while others can run away across the map. However, before I got used to the computer’s tactics, I found myself in some enjoyable scenarios: My enemies were smart, competitive, cowardly, sneaky, and sometimes even a real challenge.

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Visually the game uses real live action from the series, together with unique artwork and special cutscenes. The presentation is well themed and portrayed during each campaign. Dialogues between missions are drawn with style typical among comic books, while unique cutscenes embody the intense crime vibe found in the television series.

The level design varies between smaller and more significant, arena-style areas. Considering the mechanics involved, it’s good that these locations didn’t get too big. The vibrant and tropical colors of Colombia look fantastic, with lush green forests and clear blue skies. The city of Medellin offers more than paradisiac visuals, however, as you can see the destructive force of the drug wars across neighborhoods and even in the big cities. Indoor locations are also available such as Casinos and other notorious areas of Colombia.

Sound effects are reminiscent of the show, with the explicit language being a normal part of the routine. It was quite amusing hearing enemies cursing you in Spanish. When it comes to Soundtrack, it’s non-existent, which I found worked for the best. Hearing your teammate’s banter while listening to the environmental sound effects seems like it was the intended experience.

Narcos Rise of the Cartels

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a credit to its namesake, despite not offering significant challenging AI. The game aims to please a broad audience, and more importantly, to bring new players into the strategy genre. The experience is fun and has straightforward and unique mechanics and, thankfully, does not bite off more than it can chew. I think that this would offer El Patrón an enjoyable distraction before he jumped back into his legal profession.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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