Narcos: Rise of the Cartels review - pleasantly surprising strategy
When I close my eyes and imagine a game based on drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's life, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels isn't exactly what springs to mind.
Whereas my imagination crafts a stealth-shooter with a bass-heavy soundtrack and slick bullet-time effects (yes, this is why I write about games and not for them), Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is an a more sedate affair, fusing an XCOM-esque strategy game with the true tale of DEA agent, Steve Murphy, and his fight to take down Escobar.
This surprising choice of genre isn't a criticism. The first game to hop onto the coattails of the wildly successful Netflix show Narcos, it could've easily slipped into the unsophisticated frame of a generic FPS and most of us likely would've been satisfied with that choice (well, we've all learned the hard way not to raise our hopes for TV spin-offs; personally, I'm still recovering from Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse).
It's to the developer's credit, then, that they've created something a little more adventurous. Though it often looks like the budget title it undoubtedly is - particularly in the non-FMV cut-scenes - the environments are crafted with care and the turn-based gameplay is curiously satisfying, albeit sometimes predictable.
Perversely though, this means Rise of the Cartels isn't really for casual players curious to sample a new game set within the universe of their favourite show. Turn-based combat calls for precision and strategic planning in a way point-a-gun-and-shoot-now-games do not, so while it eliminates the need for quick reactions, it instead intensifies the need to always keep thinking one or two steps ahead. The permadeath of your squaddies brings a meaningful sense of peril into play, and while you're welcome to cheese that with save-scumming, levels are usually long enough and complex enough to dampen the temptation to simply restart the mission each time a comrade falls.
Rise of the Cartels opens out pretty much as you might expect. Playing as either the Drug Enforcement Agency (press F for Schrader) or the cartel itself, you must traverse across a series of familiar Colombian locations to execute your foes, release hostages, and secure evidence.
Beyond the introductory sequence, you'll find the isometric levels are well designed and highly detailed, with plenty of choices through which you can move your allies across the grid system and secure a victory. And while each section is distinct enough, it's sometimes tricky to make out your squadmates in amongst the visual noise; make a habit of routinely cycling through your squad and/or enemies, however, and it should help you keep on top of everyone's whereabouts.
Unlike some turn-based games, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels limits each side to just one character per round, which means instead of cycling through and manoeuvring every squadmate, you - and your enemies - can only reposition or action one recruit at a time. In some ways, this helps balance the combat - I cannot tell you the number of times I've brute-forced a turn-based boss fight by sequentially targeting my entire team on one enemy - and it also makes things decidedly trickier, especially if you're operating across numerous deployment zones and your squaddies are lacking back-up.
There's the prerequisite story mode that takes you through the events of Narco's first season, and a number of side missions that can help pad out your virtual wallet and skill tree. Progress is tracked via a war room in which you'll have access to a map, intel board, and roster, the latter of which you can use to adjust your team according to the demands of your foes. You can select allies from a number of different specialisms - everyday Colombian cops, DEA agents, Spec Ops, and the Policía Nacional de Colombia's Search Bloc, and so on - and they each have varying skills, weapons and movement capabilities depending upon their class and how much you're prepared to level them up.
At critical points, Rise of the Cartels even delivers a little of the third-person shooting action I had been expecting. Unlocking additional skills - such as the ability to counteract assaults in real-time - occasionally offers the chance to finish off a member of the cartel (or DEA, depending upon which team you're batting for) on the fly. Mechanically, these slow-motion sequences are floaty and frustrating and hamper more than they help, but occasionally you'll luck out and take down a foe before it's your turn. Emphasis on occasionally, though.
Traits and Actions do help jazz up the gameplay quite a bit, too. For instance, DEA boss Murphy can gain an additional Action move after a kill or use Buckshot, an Action that deals +1 additional damage with his shotgun. Cop Reyes, on the other hand, can store an additional Counteract point, as well as automatically reload his weapon the first time he misses an attack (which they all do, of course. A LOT. RNG FTW). Trouble is, investing skill points in anyone other than Murphy - who triggers a mission failure screen if he dies and forces a do-over - is a gamble, and it's difficult to become emotionally invested in any of Murphy's supplementary team given they're easily - if not cheaply - replaced by the next cookie-cutter copper ready for selection. That said, if you don't throw them a skill point or two now and again you risk sending under-levelled agents into the fray. It won't be long before you'll realise default max health and movement capacities just aren't enough to keep your squadmates safe in the long-term.
The turn-based action inevitably slows things down, though, and moving your cursor around the grid system is sticky and imprecise. You're also forced through a couple of side missions before you can proceed with the main campaign and while that might not be a sackable offence, it feels very much like its merely a way to pad out the game's length and artificially truncate your progress.
Though, admittedly, expectations might have been a little low, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is surprising in all the right ways. Its loading screens offer a stunning blend of animation and FMV straight from the show, and while the in-game graphics don't quite share the same slick polish and the combat can feel a little stale, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a thoughtful, unusual take on Escobar's legacy. Yeah, I'm a bit surprised, too.