Based on the acclaimed Netflix TV show, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of the lauded X-Com franchise, sharing with it the ability to move units and strategically place them on the battlefield to flank and/or otherwise neutralise (and excuse the terminology) loco gringos. For a modestly marketed title based on a popular Netflix show, Rise of the Cartels is actually a solid and decently composed caper, although at times you cartel (sorry!) whether this one’s any good or not, mainly thanks to a flimsy and straightforward presentation. One thing is for sure though, if you don’t mind taking control of a few hombres to hose down sapos, you’ll find a relatively decent if unremarkable strategy title here.
Rise of the Cartels presents itself as a paper-thin effort as far as premise and story set-up is concerned. All you need to know is that there are two campaigns – one where you control the DEA as they crackdown on illegal Narcos activities, attempting to pacify them blam-blam style as you rescue hostages, secure documents and totally wipe out illegal operations and the kingpins who oversee them. The other is where you play as the titular Narcos, repelling DEA insertions from interfering in your cocaine smuggling and product running. Despite the differences inherent in the two campaigns individually representing opposing sides of the law, there isn’t a lot else that distinguishes them – except the apparel your squad sports during battle. See, the DEA recruiters are decked out in army colours despite looking suspiciously like surgeons, and Narcos dress in typical fancy shirts and suits; because drug dealing is for business casuals.
There’s something very old-school about Rise of the Cartels, but not in a good way. The basic vibe of Rise of the Cartels opts to present itself in a rather pedestrian and disappointing fashion. There could’ve been a zing to the game akin to Pablo Escobar’s charisma in the TV series, but what we get here is straightforward and unexciting, lacking the va-va-voom expected of licensed products. As harsh as it sounds, the way Rise of the Cartels presents itself is akin to the licensed shovelware that has the names and faces but without the soul that would empower it and make it thrive.
For starters, the turn-based strategy format is disabling and frustrating because wars in the Narcos TV series are never won by both sides selecting units, moving them to a location and hoping on pot luck that they might kill an enemy dead in one shot. Obviously Rise of the Cartels should be judged as a videogame, but unfortunately the turn-based format drastically slows down the drama, sacrificing the ebb and flow of the TV series.
Your fortunes in battle hinge on the power of your weapons and how close your position is to your foe. The length and duration of your turn allows you to lay down fire, meaning at times a simple blast from a shotgun can satisfyingly blow away any opposition in one turn, as can a lobbed grenade depending on the distance from the enemy. But at other times when you’re carrying a sub-machine gun, handgun or assault rifle, usually a slab of health will diminish, meaning multiple turns are required for you to put away one sapo. Furthermore, you can move a squad member right up in the grill of an adversary and find you still cannot put him down when opting to fire directly in front of an enemy’s face, resulting in the possibility of taking unnecessary damage from your opponent when the AI retorts. You’re far more likely to miss your shots too, whereas the AI can chip away at you, as well as call in reinforcements to make your experience harder. Rise of the Cartels may be an easy game to pick up and play, yet it’s the opposite when it comes to a just and fair challenge.
All of the nuisances that spurt up in Rise of the Cartels can’t help but serve as reminders of similar turn-based strategy affairs that released over a decade ago. Yes, the structure and playability of the groundwork are all inoffensive, well and good, but times have changed and standards are staggeringly high now. If you demand a modern and groundbreaking strategy title that plays with convention then you may want to look elsewhere because Narcos will not please you in that regard. But if all you want is a straightforward strategy game where you can play two opposing sides warring with each other, then this one does a nice job.
Flourishes do exist in Rise of the Cartels, shaking things up nicely. When a member of the opposition decides to run out into the open like he’s attempting to retrieve a dropped churro, you will find the camera switching to one of your team member’s aiming reticule so you can temporarily chip away at an enemy’s health until a meter fills. Such mechanics subtly speed up the monotony of turn-based combat, but there is a caveat to keep in mind – they can do the same thing to you if you are too reckless with your movements.
Similarly, cycling through enemy and squadmate locations by way of tapping the triggers and bumpers on the Xbox One controller feels like you’ve a sense of dominion over what is happening. You are able to plot your next moves deftly and skilfully – though at times you might forget whether the triggers or the bumpers are responsible for switching between your lot, which can make things a little tacky at times.
Varied mission types add a suitable seasoning to the gameplay experience. The DEA deals with the burning of product, retrieval of documents and the saving of hostages and evacuating them to safety. On the Narcos side you’ll be doing your best to repel DEA advances, protecting pilots and neutralising key targets. Although you have a primary objective to tackle, completing secondary objectives earns you bonus awards and increases your chances of a fat A grade once you complete the mission. You’ll net even greater prosperity if you manage to keep your whole squad alive – kudos to you if you can accomplish such a feat when the difficulty starts becoming too hot to handle.
Rise of the Cartels lets you acquire skill points for your squad once you’ve completed main and side missions, letting you empower and add quirky perks to each team-member, making them distinguished by their specialisation. You can grant a comrade one extra shot per turn, or you can allow one of them to recover three chunks of their health so they can survive longer. These minor perks are made to give you an edge in combat, but the toughness of the missions only obfuscate them, making said skills only marginally impactful to your overall performance.
To put it bluntly, a powder-smacked Pablo Escobar would have a hard-time being convinced that his game resembles the kingpin’s vision. The seedy city streets, boatyards and jungles look unspectacular, as do the game’s character models, reinforcing that blandness really is the biggest drawback to Rise of the Cartels. But by the same token its unimpressive looks mirror the game’s simplicity and straightforward design; it’s unsurprising that looks appeared to be compromised for the sake of a workable strategy experience.
Few would’ve expected Narcos: Rise of the Cartels on Xbox One to make a sizeable impression given its banal trailer, but somehow this modestly marketed strategy RPG based off a TV show is a pretty decent and admirable effort. Some may scoff at its barebones presentation and visuals, but forgiveness should be encouraged because the strategy elements and the ready appeal of placing units carefully to get the drop on the enemy is satisfying. As far as strategy games go, it’s a success. Notwithstanding however is the retrograde experience provided. You could probably find a similar strategy title on the original Xbox and maybe a decade from now someone may recall this and mistake it for a much older game thanks to how generic the core of the experience is. A proper storyline from the perspectives of both the DEA and Narcos could’ve elevated the base game into something far more sumptuously involving too, but what’s here is serviceable and will readily satisfy anyone who wants to sink their teeth into a quick-fix strategy game. More disciple than patron then, but a good solid effort from Kuju despite the flaws.