El Patrón VS The DEA – A Review of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

by Gary Catig

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels brings some interesting features to the turn-based strategy genre of video games. Despite a wanting for more unit options, the interactive gameplay mechanics and adaptable AI opponents provide an enjoyable yet challenging experience.

The story closely follows the events from the first season of the show as Pablo Escobar builds his empire in Colombia. There are two playable campaigns where either you control the DEA and disrupt drug operations or side with the cartels to expand their influence. Regardless of side you choose, each mission is lead by a familiar face with Agents Murphy and Peña to Primo and El Mexicano. They really capture the likeness of the characters, and who wouldn’t want to play as Pedro Pascal or Luis Guzmán.

Along with your leader, choose from five different units to bring along on the missions. Each has their own special roll including tanks, healers/buffers, and long-range specialists. As you level up, you can customize your members with over 50 skills to choose from. It was a little disappointing that even though they have different names, there isn’t much difference in units for the DEA and the Cartels. Also, I would have hoped for more than five units to choose from for variety. However, the developers have teased the possibility of DLC from the other seasons so that could bring in more class types and skills.

Credit: Curve Digital/Kuju

One of the main aspects separating Narcos from other games in the genre is the gameplay mechanics. Instead of combat being based on units’ speed or having each side taking turns with their whole army, each side can only move one unit per turn. This quickens the pace of each battle and provides more intensity and urgency. This makes missions more team focused as you have to ensure each unit is properly supported in case they run into trouble. I definitely had to adjust my strategies knowing I couldn’t heal someone before the opponent’s next turn.

In addition, while on missions, a bar is filled that allows extra actions including counteracts and killshots. Both of these can be very valuable and can easily turn the tide of any battle. The former allows a unit to fire upon enemies that move through their line of site. This provides more realistic combat since during any firefight, there’s a risk of being shot while trying to outflank someone. The latter provides a second opportunity during a turn to strike that deathblow. In a game where turns are at a premium, that extra action can be vital. When using either action, the perspective changes to third person and you take control of the aim and shots; delivering a more interactive, hands-on experience.

Missions can vary from intel gathering, bodyguard/assassination duties, to all out war. They can be pretty tough to borderline frustrating to finish. The AI can be unpredictable, acting differently even if you take the same actions. This stresses the player’s ability to improvise and adapt and can be especially aggravating on missions with enemy reinforcements since you’ll never know where they’ll come from. Like in real life, if a unit dies, he is lost forever, so this adds further difficulty for someone like me who tries to limit casualties. In spite of the challenges, there’s a great sense of accomplishment when you beat a mission and there’s a high replay value since the same mission can vary each time.

Overall, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, from Curve Digital and Kuju, brings something new to turn-based strategy games. Innovative gameplay mechanics allow you to be more involved in the action and the character customization and variable AI provides replay value. Even though the types of character classes are limited, there is a possibility it could expand. There aren’t many games in this genre so it would be worth a pick-up.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is out now on PC and PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Curve Digital.

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