Developer Kuju and publisher Curve Digital have released Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, a tactical turn-based strategy game based on the show from which it is named. While the game aims to profit from the popularity of the series, poor AI, repetitive missions, and bad voice acting will all contribute to dooming this game into obscurity.
Narcos – Seasons One
The show begins and loosely follows most of the main events from the first season of the show. Right off the bat, however, it completely shatters the character of Murphy, as players are tasked with killing a man suspected of being involved with the cartel in cold blood. This sets the tone of the entire game: murder every Colombian male you encounter or play as them to murder the DEA.
Tactical Combat That Requires No Tactics
X-COM will undoubtedly be the series referenced by players when describing Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. Today’s game market is saturated with similar titles in the tactical genre, and new entrants need to stand out with innovative features and challenging gameplay if they are to be noticed. Unfortunately, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels has none of these things.
Combat is simple and straightforward, with players tasked to carry out different objectives with a range of characters. In most cases, it boils down to killing everyone, or specific high-value targets. Players can choose if they wish to use the entire squad or focus on only one character to take up the entire turn. Since there are cooldowns, sharing the load makes for the most efficient playstyle, though it is never that difficult because the AI is more miss than hit.
There is no gentle way to say that the AI is severely lacking in its development and polish. At best, players can hope for a competent set of computer-controlled opponents who make some reasonably good moves against your team. Most of the time, the AI worked in flawed ways so as to shatter any immersion the game might have had.
The three most frustrating examples begin when sometimes an AI-controlled opponent would close the gap to one of your men, or flank their position, only to do nothing but pass their turn and wait for death. Second, the AI may be hit from a distance with a ranged attack, like from an explosive area of effect ability, and take some damage in the process. On their turn, they will opt to rest and heal for a single point of health, only to take another two or three the next turn, repeating until they are killed. Finally, and equally as frustrating, sometimes an opponent would be within range of killing one of your men, but opt to instead change targets to another target with full health, meaning that he wastes his turn, and is immediately killed by the player.
For these reasons, the game never felt challenging. It could certainly feel frustrating to lose to overwhelming numbers, but on a second attempt and knowing how a fight will unfold, it was easy to breeze through with the above noted AI behaviors. The only redeeming quality as a concept is Counteract, which demands players pay attention to the resources of an opponent to avoid quick death while moving.
Bland Missions That Repeat, And Repeat, And Repeat…
When starting the game, missions feel fresh and somewhat interesting. Players will learn the ins and outs of combat across a few maps, but then the grind begins. The main story is intentionally gated by side quests, which feel as though they should be optional, but are mandatory to unlock the main quest.
Maps soon become recycled over and over again, and this is a big problem for any kind of immersion into the story. This becomes doubly problematic when one finishes playing as the DEA and switches over to the Narcos, because the maps come back again, but now are played from the opposite side with the other group. Is this meant to be like a soccer field where each team agrees to show up every few weeks for a bloodbath battle to the death? Probably not. So, it feels ridiculous to revisit the same maps so many times as either DEA or Narcos.
Leveling Characters Would Feel Meaningful, If The AI Were Better
The leveling system for the characters you hire from the roster page is interesting and provides some customization for strategy. On top of this, death is permanent for virtually everyone, and so the stakes should feel high with each fight. Once again, however, the AI ruins this concept at its core, as there is hardly ever a meaningful threat to your men.
The Elephant In The Room: Glorifying A Monster
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, "el patron" as he is most often referred to in the game, was a real-life murderer and a terrorist responsible for the killings of over 3,000 people during his control of the Medellín cartel, along with approximately 600 police officers and 107 others after blowing up a commercial flight. Nothing about the man should be glorified or idolized, and yet half of the game’s story is dedicated to players taking firsthand control of his rise in power.
At first, I thought that these views on the glorification of real-life monsters would mar my perception of the game for this review. Luckily, the game is so poorly executed in its core gameplay design that this is not an issue. These kinds of glorification stories should be avoided in the future for being disrespectful to the real victims and their families, most of whom are still alive today and live with the loss of loved ones. The only silver lining of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is that the game itself is such a disappointment in what it sets out to do that few people will play it in the first place.