Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Review – ¿Plata o Plomo?
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels19th November, 2019
In the very first season of Narcos, Pablo Escobar asked a very simple question of some soldiers. That question was "Plata o Plomo?" which literally translates into "silver or lead?" The very same question could be asked of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, the game based on the hit Netflix series. If that question is asked, I'd like to add a third option: mierda.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, by all accounts, should be a good game. Trailers and pre-release materials certainly made it look appealing. Granted, pre-release materials should make a game look good, if they don't, somebody screwed up. So, as a fan of the show and the genre, I was looking forward to this. That makes the end result much more of a disappointment than I ever expected it could be.
Let's get to the crux of the issue with a simple question for developers Kuju: "Do you X-Com?" Genuinely, I need to know the answer. If you don't, I'll at least understand why you went wrong. Actually, no I won't, you could have looked at any gameplay video from any half-decent real-time tactics game to see how they work. The problem here is all down to one monumentally stupid design choice: you can only control one character per turn. One. Who actually made this call?
If I seem angry or irritated about this, it's because I am. It's hard to get across just how restrictive and slow Narcos: Rise of the Cartels feels as a result of this. Each turn you get a fixed number of action and movement points, starting at one each, and since neither you nor the AI has any restrictions in which units you use you'll likely end up using the same two units. If not just the one unit, as I've found myself doing in many missions. Due to this, the remainder of your team is left behind twiddling their thumbs wondering why this war against drugs is being fought single-handedly.
To make matters worse, this one character can also include one you happen to be escorting in escort missions. Some of these are actual core story missions as well, meaning you can't skip the added tedium. Those you escort also happen to be completely helpless and weaponless because of course the game is going to do something else to make itself worse. Why wouldn't it? So yes, there are times where you'll be unable to even think of attacking or defending because you're too busy moving a worthless character in the direction of whatever extraction point the game has designated.
What makes all of this worse is that Narcos: Rise of the Cartels has some genuinely good ideas to mix up the real-time tactics.
One particular thing comes in the form of special skills and passive abilities that can be unlocked as your characters level up. Certain abilities let you get around the whole one character per turn aspect. Chain Reaction, for example, gives all adjacent characters of yours a movement point to the character who has just finished their move. That's a passive ability as well, meaning you don't have to waste an attack by using it. Another, Instruct, does use an action point but gives all adjacent units an action point that turn. Using these and other similar skills allows for the use of some actual tactics in the Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, limited as they may be.
Another feature that I'm genuinely surprised I haven't encountered before is what acts as a replacement to overwatch. The way it works is for each action or movement you don't use in a turn, your selected character gains half a counteract point. For each full point you have, your character can take shots at any enemy that happens to wander into their line of sight and counteract zone. Each variation of unit understandably has its own range and zone. It can be used pretty tactically if you skip three turns at the beginning of a match to full up the counteract points of a character with an assault rifle and place them in a strategic location.
The core difference here compared to other similar titles is that instead of your character automatically shooting at the enemy, you take control. Red crosshairs appear on the screen and you have a limited amount of time to line them up with the moving enemy and keep pulling the trigger. Another similar system is with killshots. If your attack leaves an enemy on one unit of health, you are given the chance to perform a killshot which - if you line up the crosshairs and pull the trigger - finishes the enemy off.
Honestly, I want these to appear in every single real-time tactics game made from now on. Sure, it takes away the RNG of hitting an enemy in that way, but it actually adds a bit of something interesting and different to the formula. A core problem with the counteract system, though, boils down to the elephant-sized pile of white powder in the room: one unit per turn. Plan all you like, there are still too many restrictions. It's not that you can't set traps and other manoeuvres up. You can, the AI is fundamentally broken and lets you do anything you want, it's just that doing it takes too long.
On the AI. It's genuinely one of the worst I've encountered in years, so much so that I think it's been on the same drugs you're trying to stop in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. The only time I've ever seen it take any sort of initiative and move in a way that could be considered "not stupid as hell" was in particular side-missions where they have to kill one particular character you're defending. Actually, it was still stupid, they would flock to that person like rock stars to cocaine, no thought to their own wellbeing.
On the stupidity: I've seen characters walking backwards and forwards despite me closing in on a hostage I've been sent to recover. I've had enemies make kamikaze runs, standing at the side of my unit and blasting away in an attack that would never kill the unit, leaving them facing their imminent death. I've had them ignoring my soldier making a beeline to an item I need to pick up to win the mission. What makes it worse is that you're forced to do way too many side-missions per campaign.
You need to do a certain amount to unlock the story mission. Also, you get rewarded with money to hire new units and skill points to level up those you have. It doesn't matter though. You can only take a squad of five into combat and despite the game telling you that you'll want to swap them depending on the mission, you simply won't need to. Why? The game was that easy to out-think I never lost anybody. Any injuries, I had more than enough money to heal them after the battle. You can also use your movement point to heal one unit of health so it's easy to fully recover your units if you want to waste time, thanks to the moronic AI not taking advantage of your situation.
All of this inevitably led to the behind-the-scenes squad building aspect feeling tacked on. You can hire other members and use your spare skill points to level them up, all while looking at your war map to see where you're going to be targeting next. Provided you've completed the prerequisite number of side missions of course. But it's shallow due to limited unit variety and the ease of side missions makes money and skill points so easy to come by.
The two campaigns in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels cover the DEA and the Medellin cartel across the first season of the show. It's a good story, though you'd be better off watching the show. Other than the cutscenes, there's no difference between the sides. Units are simply reskinned and renamed so in reality, there are five types of units. Other than that, the game looks and sounds. Yeah, that's about right, you can see and hear it. Nothing stands out, though it isn't offensively bad.
So while the story may be decent enough when told through its cutscenes, if you want to actually get the feel of Narcos, watch the show on Netflix. That's honestly the best advice I can give. I can imagine this having been an average to a slightly above-average game. A decent enough way to pass time if it had decent gameplay. However, that one core decision has changed what could have been average to what is abysmal.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by the publisher.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is the perfect example of one decision ruining any chance a game had of being reasonable. An X-COM style real-time tactics game where you can only use one character per turn, which limits tactical options and essentially grinds the game to a halt as soon as you take to the field. Compounded by moronic AI in repetitive missions that are made so easy the squad-building and permadeath is rendered pointless. The game has a few interesting aspects, such as a unique third-person shooter twist on overwatch mechanics found in other games. All in all, this isn't the way to experience Narcos - watch the show instead.
- The counteract and killshot systems are very interesting additions to the genre and can offer some decent tactical options
- Customisation through selecting skills can be decent, though there isn't a great deal of variety
- Only allows you to use one character per turn, an incomprehensible design decision
- This design decision makes the game incredibly slow and tedious
- AI is incredibly stupid, making nonsensical decisions & often just running backwards and forward
- No real depth in unit types, with no incentive (other than permadeath) to swap anybody out.
- Missions can get terribly repetitive