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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Indie Game Review

Originally airing back on Netflix back in 2015 Narcos became a pretty popular show for Netflix. The show ended up lasting a couple seasons as it followed the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in the 1980s. While the show was pretty popular I have to admit that I was kind of surprised when I heard that the show was getting a video game based off of it four years after it originally aired. Having never seen the show I normally wouldn’t be interested in a game like Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, but I was intrigued due to what type of game that it ended up being. I have been a fan of the turn based strategy genre for quite a few years and have in particular liked the X-COM series as well as Mutant Year Zero. For this reason I decided to try out Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. Narcos: Rise of the Cartels follows the X-COM turn based strategy genre pretty closely making for a fun game for fans of the genre that has some issues preventing it from being one of the best games from the genre.

We at Geeky Hobbies would like to thank Curve Digital and Kuju for the review copy of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels used for this review. Other than receiving a free copy of the game to review, we at Geeky Hobbies received no other compensation for this review. Receiving the review copy for free had no impact on the content of this review or the final score.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is based off of the hit Netflix television show Narcos. You play as either the DEA or the Narcos drug cartel. It is the 1980s in Columbia at the start of the war on drugs. El Patrón is starting to grow his drug empire and America is starting to take notice. As the DEA you are tasked with keeping track of the cartel and killing key members to bring it down. Meanwhile playing as the Narcos you are tasked with growing the cartel while fending off the DEA that is trying to bring down your empire.

If I were to describe Narcos: Rise of the Cartels I would say that it plays a lot like X-COM/Mutant Year Zero meets the war on drugs. Anyone familiar with this genre should already be familiar with most of the gameplay in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. For those unfamiliar with the genre the game is played over a set of different scenarios. In each scenario you are given a group of units to control. Each turn you choose which of your units you would like to use. You are then given two different actions points. One action points is used for passive abilities. This action point can be used to move your units around the grid or it can be used for support abilities. Movement is important in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels as positioning can be the difference between life and death. You want to move your units between covers because it provides considerable defense for when the enemy units attack. Positioning is also important as your relation to the enemy units determine the odds of hitting them and how much damage you can do.

The other action point you get is used for more active abilities. This can include reloading your weapons or other offensive abilities. Its main role though is to attack enemy units. The combat in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is pretty similar to most games in this genre. Your units may attack any units within their range that are visible to them. You can choose which unit you would like to attack which gives you the percentage odds that your attack will be successful and the potential damage that it can cause. When an enemy or one of your units lose their last piece of health they are killed and are removed from the battle.

Basically Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is broken down into a set of missions. Each mission takes place on a different map and can entail a couple different objectives. Outside of just killing all of the enemies in a mission there are also objectives of planting bugs on a specific area of the map, collecting a certain amount of evidence/items, burning items located around the map, and saving a hostage and escorting them to a different part of the map. These various missions are used to gather information needed to complete a bigger mission. As the DEA this involves taking down leaders of the cartel while as the Narcos this involves growing the cartel.

For anyone familiar with the genre this should all feel quite familiar to you as Narcos: Rise of the Cartels shares a lot in common with the genre. The game has a couple of its own tweaks which I will get to shortly, but for the most part the game doesn’t stray too far from the typical game from the genre. I enjoy this genre and I had fun playing Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. The game features the same turn based strategic gameplay that I enjoy from the genre. It is satisfying when you can create a plan to wipe out the enemy units while limiting the damage to your own units. If you have never really enjoyed this genre I don’t think Narcos: Rise of the Cartels differentiates itself enough to change your mind. Fans of the genre though should enjoy their time with the game.

So lets move onto the mechanics that are unique to Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. I want to begin with the fact that the game features permadeath. This is present in a lot of games from this genre but it is usually only used on the highest difficulty levels. Death is always permanent in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. If any of your units run out of health during combat they are gone forever. You don’t maintain any of their skills or recoup their loss in any way. Whenever you have a death you have to use the money you acquire from completing missions to recruit new units. As this money is only used to recruit new units and heal units after missions, the money is not a big deal unless you are running low. The bigger problem is that you lose all of the leveling progress that you have made with killed characters. After each mission you will gain experience which eventually unlocks new levels giving you access to additional abilities. These abilities can be really useful and it will hurt when you lose access to them.

For the most part I have never been a huge fan of permadeath in video games. I hate to lose all of the progress I have made with a character because of one bad decision or some bad luck. I wasn’t a huge fan of this mechanic in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels even though it thematically makes a lot of sense. After playing the game for a while the mechanic grew on me a little as it does bring tension to the game. Each decision in the game is important as one bad decision can get one of your units killed. This makes some scenarios kind of tense where you are unsure if all of your units will make it out alive. Generally if you make smart decisions your units will be safe.

This brings me to the second new mechanic in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. This could be present in some games from the genre, but I have not seen it it any of the games that I have played recently. Narcos: Rise of the Cartels actually gives you a heal action. In most games you are given the opportunity to equip health packs which allow you to heal. These are limited though and are used up after you take the corresponding action. In Narcos: Rise of the Cartels there are no health packs. Instead you are given healing actions. Every unit in the game can forfeit their passive action for one turn to heal one health point. Units can also acquire abilities with a cooldown period that heal more health. This makes the permadeaths not as critical as you can usually take your time and avoid losing units. If you are willing to sit back for a couple turns you can heal your units back up to full health before proceeding. For the most part I thought this was a good idea as it makes the game a little more forgiving. It does lead to some issues due to the enemy AI though.

So I have to say that I have mixed feelings as it comes to the enemy AI. In some ways I think the enemy AI presents some challenge and in other ways it can be quite stupid. I will preface this by saying that I have only played through part of the game so the enemy AI may change as you get further into the game. On the positive side the enemy AI can sometimes make smart choices. When the enemy AI is in a defensive position the units sometimes just stay in their locations. You can play the stalling game but they will not move out of their covered positions until you start to advance. This gives the enemy units the opportunity to ambush you before you can kill them. This can lead to the unit you send out being killed by the enemies. Basically there are situations where you have to use one of your units as a sacrificial lamb. The game even anticipates this as you still get a perfect level ranking even if you let a unit die. There are also situations where enemies will surprise ambush you by appearing out of nowhere.

This enemy behavior can appear “smart” at times even though it feels a little cheap. At other times the enemy AI is just stupid. There will be times when enemies will run from secure locations to other covers that allow them to be attacked by your units. The enemy AI is also usually willing to let you sit back and heal up your units. If a unit is close to death and you just sit pat and heal up the enemies usually won’t attack and try to finish off your units. The stupidest encounter I have had with the enemy AIs though has to deal with when you acquire longer range units. You will eventually be able to acquire units that launch grenades into the air over pretty long distances that deal quite a bit of damage. Their one weakness is that they only have one ammo for this weapon which means that you can only shoot with them every other turn. You would think the enemy AI would want to rush these units after they attack to try and kill them before they can attack again. Instead if you position the units correctly you can fire on an enemy, spend the next turn reloading, and then fire again. When reloading the enemy units will just stay in the same position and use the heal action to heal one health. Your attack does more damage though so if you are patient you can just spam this attack, reload, attack again method to kill enemy units without having to worry about the enemy units ever attacking you. This only works in certain situations, but it feels like a failure of the AI.

The final unique mechanics in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels are the counteract and kill shot mechanics. Most games from this genre have an “overwatch” type mechanic. Basically instead of taking an action on your turn you can instead pass the turn and activate the overwatch ability. This ability automatically activates when an enemy moves into the unit’s line of sight allowing the unit to shoot at the moving enemy. The counteract mechanic is similar to this mechanic but different as well. Instead of giving up your turn to activate the ability you acquire counteract points by using certain abilities or ending your turn without using one of your actions. When an enemy moves into your unit’s line of sight and the unit has enough counteract points the ability will activate. This ability turns the game into a normal third person shooter in slow motion where you can shoot a couple times (depending on your number of counteract points) at the unit dealing damage with each hit. The kill shot mechanics are the same but they activate when an enemy unit that you just shot is near death.

While Narcos: Rise of the Cartels could have been a little more clear about how these mechanics work, I actually really liked them. Adding in some real time combat adds some variety to a genre that is mostly about positioning units around a grid. The shooting mechanics are kind of basic and sometimes it looks like you hit an enemy and yet it doesn’t register. I thought this mechanic was a breath of fresh air though and is something that other games in this genre should consider implementing.

So far I have only played for five or six hours but I have enjoyed my time with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. I am a little worried that the game is going to get a little repetitive after a while though. I say this because in my short time with the game there are already hints that the game could become repetitive. The problem is that the levels don’t feel all that different. The game has a couple different types of missions but they basically boil down to the same things. Unless you want to put your units at risk the first thing you will do in every type of level is kill all of the enemies. After you have cleared out all of the enemies you can proceed to complete the additional objectives for the stage. These additional objectives tend to get repetitive after a while as well. In my short time with the game I have encountered the same type of missions over and over again. Because of the game becoming repetitive after a while I see Narcos: Rise of the Cartels as more of the type of game that you may play a couple missions at a time and then come back to on another day.

As for as theme I have to say that I have never seen Narcos which the game is based on. I personally found the theme to be pretty average. The graphics are pretty average as sometimes the game looks pretty good and at other times it could look better. The story is nothing special either. The story is a pretty generic story of either taking down a drug cartel or growing a cartel. If it wasn’t already clear the game focuses on a lot of mature content involving drug dealing, adult language and it can be pretty violent at times. People who have seen the show might get more out of the game’s theme than I did, but I found it to be pretty average. It was interesting enough to pay attention to what was happening, but it wasn’t super captivating where I had to know what was going to happen next.

As for the length I can’t give a definitive length as I have only played a portion of the game. I think you could get quite a bit of time out of the game though. The game consists of two complete campaigns which both appear to be pretty long. While I have mostly just played the DEA story so far I checked out a couple of the Narcos missions for comparisons sake. Outside of the story and the fact that you have access to different units there doesn’t seem to be a lot of differences between the two campaigns. The gameplay is the same for both campaigns and a lot of the locations are reused. I applaud the game for including two campaigns though as it adds more content to the game. If you like these type of games I think you will get your money’s worth out of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels.

Despite never seeing the show that the game is based on, I had fun with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. The game shares a lot in common with the X-COM series of turn based strategy games. You basically move your units around a grid board as you try to outmaneuver your enemies and kill them. Most of the mechanics are very similar to most games from the genre. This is not necessarily a bad thing as Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is fun but it doesn’t revolutionize the genre. The most unique mechanic is the ability to counteract which temporarily turns the game into a third person shooter (in slow motion) as you can shoot enemies that enter a unit’s line of sight. I thought this was a really interesting idea that other games in the genre should consider implementing. The computer AI in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels can be kind of stupid at times though. The game also feels a little repetitive at times as you mostly do the same things during every mission.

My recommendation for Narcos: Rise of the Cartels comes down to your thoughts on this genre and the overall theme. If you don’t like the genre or the Narcos theme I don’t think the game will be for you. If you want a challenge and the stupid AI worries you I would maybe wait for a sale. If you like turn based strategy games though and think the theme is interesting you should enjoy your time with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, and I would recommend that you pick it up.

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