To most people, Narcos is the popular Netflix series telling stories of the battle between the drug cartels and the combined law enforcement agencies of Colombia and the USA. It’s a series full of raids, shootouts and subterfuge. Lots of actions.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a little bit different. Developer Kuju have blended the TV action and intrigue together with a turn-based strategies like XCOM and chess in a rather entertaining package.
Narcos: Rise of The Cartels is set during the first season of the show, based on the conflict between Pablo Escobar and law enforcement. The game has two campaigns to tackle, one from the point of view of the DEA and the other from the point of view of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, though you’ll have to tackle the first DEA mission before you can turn heel and play the Cartel’s campaign.
Both campaigns are similarly structured. In each, there is a map that shows the available missions, a roster section where units can be recruited, and a board that shows information from missions completed. These screens are really easy to navigate so you can get to the action quickly, which is exactly where you want to be.
You deploy a squad of up to five units to tackle each scenario, and there are conveniently five different classes are the same for both sides, just named differently. The Police/Lookout is the weakest unit armed with only a pistol but offers support to the other units. Search Bloc/Enforcer units are armed with submachine guns that can spray bullets to deal damage to multiple enemy units, while Spec Ops/Mercenary units have machine guns that deal damage to one enemy. DEA/Sicario units are armed with shotguns for close combat, and Demolition/Specialist units are tank characters armed with explosives.
Of all of these classes, the most effective seem to be Search Bloc/Enforcer class and the Spec Ops/Mercenary units. Getting a squad with a mix of these classes will more often than not get you through the skirmishes quite comfortably. In fact, some of the missions seem a bit too easy, regardless of what the actual difficulty is. Most of the missions can be done and dusted within 10 minutes, with the larger core story missions offering a bit more of a challenge.
To unlock these story missions you have to complete a number of support missions, and these usually consist of either defending an asset from waves of enemies, rescuing a hostage, capturing an asset, assassinating a target, obtaining intel, or planting a bug. While there are different objectives the missions generally play out the same. You place your five units in deployment zones and then start.
This is where it gets a bit chess-like as you alternate with the enemy, ordering one unit per turn, using up movement and action points to get into position and then fire weapons, use special abilities or just reload. Each unit type has a different movement range and you always need to be aware of where the enemy is. Getting a unit in cover may protect them from attack from one angle, but not every angle.
Some units can Counteract an enemy’s move and open fire to deal extra damage, similar to overwatch in other games. The difference is that aiming and shooting is manually controlled in third person, instead of being a simple percentage chance. Kill-shot is a similar system, where damage dealt may mean an enemy has one health point left, and if you time the shot perfectly you can take an enemy out.
You soon become attached to each unit, but if they fall in a successfully completed mission, they’re gone forever. Death is a permanent fixture in Narcos. If you lose a unit you can always recruit more, by using the cash earned from completing missions, but gone is all the experience and skills hoarded in your characters. Thankfully, both cash and skills are given out generously. At no point was I fearing running out of money and the number of skill points awarded meant every unit I had was leveled up to the level caps imposed. That obviously feeds back into the easiness of the game.
That feeling isn’t helped by some of the AI decision making when countering. There were a lot of occasions where the AI made dumb decisions, like having AI lookout character with a pistol running right up to a DEA character wielding a shotgun, and dealing just two damage. The following turn inevitably just sees the DEA blast him away. In other situations, enemy characters just won’t advance on you making them quite easy to pick off.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a decent enough looking game, though some of the models in cutscenes do look a bit dated. More variable is the sound, with the audio mix for speech in particular change in quality.