We've been pretty excited while waiting for Narcos: Rise of the Cartels to drop; an isometric turn-based strategy set in Colombia and based on the popular Netflix series seemed just what the doctor ordered, but sadly it didn't quite deliver everything we had hoped for.
Narcos, if you're not aware, is a hit TV show about the rise of one Pablo Escobar, who became the head of a cartel and ended up... well, we'll not spoil that for you. The game is based on the first season of the Netflix show, so if you're a massive fan of the series, you'll get all the more out of this.
All of your favourite characters are here, such as Pablo and Murphy, and their pictures and character models are based on the actors and not their real-life counterparts. Then there's music and story beats taken straight out of the show, which at times made us feel like it was trying to link itself back to the series as if to justify its existence - sometimes it would have been nice if it had stood on its own two feet a bit more.
In a nutshell, Narcos is a series of turn-based raids and missions where there are two sides to play as, the Narcos and the DEA (the American drug police otherwise known as the Drug Enforcement Administration). You don't get to choose who you play as at first, in fact, you have to open up the Narcos story by completing some of the DEA missions.
Before you go into battle, you can select five squad members. There are five different classes to choose from during the DEA mission: one has a pistol who can run a bit further, there's another with a grenade launcher, there's a shotgun-wielding DEA agent, an assault rifle special forces type, and a bloke with a submachine gun. We spent most of our time with the shotgun and assault rifle units, as they seemed the most useful.
When you do open up the Narcos story you find that the same roster of classes are available. This felt like lazy character design as the only things that were changed were the skins and the characters' names. It would have been nicer to get different units for each side. The same can be said of the levels, as often the Narco's missions were just the reverse of what you'd done with the DEA.
The game shines brightest during the missions. There is a range of operations that have you kill this guy, protect that person, rescue someone else, or find some intel. In terms of in-game missions, rather than moving your team and then ending your turn and waiting for your enemy to do the same, the order of movement is decided more like an RPG where characters from each side take it in turns to move. It was a nice idea, but more often than not we found that we ended up just focusing on one or two of the characters, going in all guns blazing like a one-man army, a technique that was helped by poor AI, which we'll get to soon.
Before we moan, we want to say what we liked during the combat. The level design was great, and you can tell the developer really tried to capture the magic of Colombia thanks to some quality visual design. Then there was our favourite: if you've taken enough health off during an attack, you can finish off an opponent with a kill shot. Instead of relying on luck, it is a quick time moment where you have to move your crosshairs over the enemy and press X. You can perform a counter-attack move too, which is based around the same idea. Another thing we enjoyed was that countering relies on your character not using all their energy during their turn and saving up counter-points. This added a level of strategy to proceedings that we approved of.
Our first major moan is a big one and that's because the AI was quite poor at times. Often you'd see that bloke with a pistol running right up to you, shooting you in the face to do a maximum of two damage and then ending their turn. Then, you could simply select the character who's been shot and blow the enemy away. Each time it happened it felt like a hollow and easy kill.
Another thing that irked us is how the enemies often showed little in the way of initiative. It was especially obvious in the DEA's campaign, when you are incentivised into keeping one or two powerful character/s at the vanguard of your attack. The trick is that each turn you can rest to recharge your health (one bar at a time until you're fully fit). Thus it feels like a shallow victory when you watch your enemy stand still because you aren't in their immediate vicinity, allowing you to heal in relative peace. This tactic didn't work all the time, and after completing certain objectives you might have to survive an onslaught for a few turns when backup arrives, which did add some excitement and varied the experience.
Between the missions you head back to your respective bases. There you can allocate skill points to level up your characters and gain new abilities, such as extra damage. If any soldiers are injured you can pay to heal them, or let them rest. If one dies during the mission, it's a different story, as dead means dead in Rise of the Cartels. When a character dies, they're gone forever and all that levelling up was for nothing. The plus side of that is that it means you become more attached to your characters, and the game benefitted from this permadeath.
If you do have to replace someone, you can pay for a new recruit. Perhaps that means you have to balance the books and take care of your finances, especially as you have to spend money to take part in operations? Actually, no, that's not the case, because when you run out of money, someone magically tops it back up for you. In fact, you're reminded not to worry about it. You can spend, and there are no consequences. It made us wonder why they bothered adding an economy as the mechanic wasn't really explored at all.
So with that lack of strategy and thanks to the tactically inept AI, it all felt a bit too easy at times. Apart from those two things, the game felt polished, and it looks and plays well. The controls and user interface function really well too, and as we've said the level design is great. The character models also look spot on, and you're able to recognise who everyone is from the show. On top of that, the sound and the music was fabulous, however, the characters consistently repeated catchphrases during the combat.
All in all, Narcos is solid, but it's not a great game and it certainly had the potential to be better. It's one for the fans, and there are some good features in there (in particular, we liked the kill shot). However, strange AI decisions made the missions a bit too easy at times, and there was a lack of challenge on both a tactical and a strategical level. That said, we still enjoyed most of our time with the game, although with a few tweaks and it could have been great.