Narcos: Rise of the Cartels (PS4) Review

I’ll be honest here – I’ve not seen any episodes from the Netflix series which this game is based on, Narcos. However, for newcomers to the franchise, like me, the game does a great job of introducing you to characters and the story. It mixes live-action snippets from the first season of the show, along with missions which are explained fully, that follows the overall narrative without prior knowledge required. So, I had no issues whatsoever with jumping in to try out Narcos: Rise of the Cartels even though I initially had no idea what the game or series was about.

Published by Curve Digital and Developed by Kuju Games, a developer who has created games in every genre imaginable other than the Tactical RPG format, I was a little sceptical with how this game would turn out. I love Tactical games, Phantom Doctrine was one of my favourite games on the PlayStation 4 last year and you can’t beat a good 30+ hour gaming marathon on Xcom 2, but Narcos: Rise of the Cartels has a rather unique selling point, one which I’ll look into later. 

So, should you try out this new TRPG set within the exotic criminal world of Netflix’s Narcos, or is it best to pick up something less ‘unique’? Let’s take a look…

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Work through the story as you find cues to the final showdown with El Patron.

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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels follows (from what I’ve read) the storyline within the first season of the Narcos series – with talks that they may have season two and three as DLC or additional expansions/games. It also allows you to play the role of both the DEA and the Cartels (once you’ve completed the first major mission within the DEA story). This allows you to not only play out a number of the missions from the other side of the battlefield, but you also get new intel into what the other side is doing behind closed doors, events and situations you wouldn’t come across if you were just following one side – which is a mechanic I’ve always enjoyed.

It’s the 1980’s in Columbia, El Patrón is expanding his influence and control over the country, starting with the town of Medellin, with the help of his drug and corruption empire. However, as the drug mogul gains notoriety, the USA becomes aware and decide to send in the DEA to seek out the one in charge and bring him to justice (if he can live long enough). You’ll find yourself venturing to familiar locations (if you’ve watched the show) as you battle it out as either the good guys or the bad guys (which is which all depends on your interpretation). 

It’s a rather generic story – America vs Drugs, but as you get further into the game, events unfold which makes it more memorable and interesting – especially as you swap between the two factions.

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Walk like a crab in front of me, prepare to get shot in the face!

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Gameplay
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a Tactical RPG game in which you command up to five members in your squad as you set out to complete various objectives within main and side missions. The gameplay is similar to titles such as Phantom Doctrine, an isometric viewpoint in which you move your units so they can hide behind cover, pick up objects, shoot enemies, and utilise their learnt abilities. However, there are two USPs (unique selling points) for this game over any other within the genre that I’ve played up until this week – the Manual Overwatch and the Worms-like turn selection mechanics. So, let’s look at these new features as they’ll be the features you may not know about.

Manual Overwatch Attacks.
Whereas most TRPGs will let you end a turn by enabling Overwatch (if you have a spare action point and bullets in your weapon), Narcos: Rise of the Cartels decides it’s not going to be RND as to whether or not you hit the enemies as they run in front of you. Each time you opt to end your turn you’ll get half an ‘Overwatch’ eye – certain abilities will give you and/or people near you a full eye upon utilising the skill as well. If you have ammo and at least one Overwatch eye, if someone moves and they are within your range, you can attack the enemy whilst they’re running (albeit in slow motion). So, how’s that different to your standard TRPG? Well…

In Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, when Overwatch kicks in, a cursor appears on the screen and you have to manually aim and fire your weapon, meaning the accuracy all comes down to how fast and precise YOU are. This was a surprise the first time it happened but it’s such a cool mechanic as I’ve never seen this in any other game. It allows you to aim for their heads in order to take them out faster, or play it safe and aim for their body but possibly deliver less of an impact – it’s all up to you and how much you trust your efficiency and accuracy. 

Similarly, when you’re taking your actual turn, if you attack an enemy and they are reduced to one life bar and you have ammo left, the game will also let you do a slow-motion second-wind attack to see if you can kill them in the same fashion as the above Overwatch attack.

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Although you have five units, only one shall receive commands!

One-by-one
The second USP for Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is how you actually take your turn. Standard TRPG games will have you move all of your characters within your turn – either moving and/or attacking as well as performing any special abilities such as healing or setting up Overwatch. Once you’re finished, you hit ‘end turn’ and the CPU takes their go at delivering commands to all their units before they hand the reins back over to you. This isn’t how things go within this game as it plays a lot like the Team17 cult classic, Worms…

If you’ve played Worms, you’ll probably know what I’m getting at, each turn consists of you picking a single unit which you wish to give commands to – that’s all, one. So, although you have five units, all of which are ready for action, you have to strategic pick which single unit you wish to either move, attack, use an ability from or a combination of the above – then it’s the opponents turn to do the same to one of their units before you can go again. Personally, I thought this made the game much more difficult as it became almost like a game of chess, having to think numerous steps ahead so that you don’t end up in a situation where taking control of one person to do something ends up leaving another unit open for being slaughtered on the next turn.

Another key point about the difficult and strategic gameplay is that the game instantly activates permadeath mode, with no option to disable it because it’s trying to be as realistic as it can be. What does this mean? Basically, if any of your units die within a mission, they’re dead forever – you have no way of bringing people back to life after you’ve completed your goals, you can’t carry them to an extraction point, and you can’t revive anyone on the battlefield – they’re simply dead… However, the mission only ends prematurely in a failure if the main character (who you don’t have to take with you) dies, everyone else is replaceable cannon fodder as long as you have enough money.

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Narcos Rise of the Cartels 4

Upgrade your skills – if you can make it through a mission without dying!

The RPG in TRPG
So, I’ve touched on the tactical side, it’s a very brutal game at times as you can’t save during the mission and one wrong move could leave to the permanent death of one of your most valued (and expensive to replace) units. But, what about the RPG nature? Each mission a unit is involved in and comes out alive or injured, they receive skill points. These are accumulated until you reach the next level and obtain the chance to pick two active or passive abilities. The choices all vary based upon the unit type and the level they’ve reached, but some such abilities are increasing your health, allowing you to grant an Overwatch eye to everyone nearby, carrying more shots per-reload, and the ability to heal yourself up to three health units. 

You’ll also obtain ‘Squad Points’ which will continuously add up so that you can pick which units you wish to invest them into. This is great for boosting newly bought units, or those you didn’t send into battle, as you don’t want to send a level 1 unit into a later mission where everyone else is higher. 

Although you don’t have much customisation over the characters you hire, there are various classes, each with their own weapons, skills and strengths. It may sound great to have a team of units who can all heal themselves multiple life bars per-round, but with only a pistol as their sole weapon, they aren’t going to make much of an impact on the enemy units. Once again, this lends itself to the tactical side of the game – you’re constantly having to decide who to take with you based on the situation at hand. Thankfully, if you have the money, you can hire a bunch of units and swap them around at will. 

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Although quite small, the various maps have a lot of detail in them.

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What’s the game like?
The main question is, is Narcos: Rise of the Cartels fun to play and other than the two USPs above, it there enough variety in the gameplay to set it above other TRPGs out there? In response to the first point, yes, the game is fun to play – even if I did find it pretty tricky and quite brutal at times. The two campaigns offer contrasting stories which result in certain events playing out from another perspective whilst both introducing completely new events you’ll only see within that particular narrative. My only complaint lies within the way the game is presented and the repetition of locations.

The game contains a number of main missions. However, in order to access a key mission, you have to first complete a few side missions which are branched off from it on the map screen. These seem random as they’re simply ‘retrieve the suitcase’, ‘escort someone to safety’, ‘take someone out’, etc… One or two will be free to participate in but the rest will require a lot of cash up-front in order to even try to complete them. However, the more you pay to enter, the higher the possible reward is (based on time, casualties, kills, and efficiency). What I found was a lot of the side missions seemed to use the same maps as other side missions quite regularly. I’m sure I fought on the same rooftops of a building about four times, one after another. The enemy placement, objective, and combat were different, but the small area was identical. 

Thankfully, the main missions do seem to use bigger unique maps which are more suited to the mission you’ve been given and more in-line with the narrative being told. 

Another thing I enjoyed, with the gameplay side, is that every unit has the ability to heal themselves for free. You can opt to give up moving for a turn and ‘rest’ to heal a single health bar at any time. Sure it means you can’t move and remain a sitting duck for the opponent if they have someone near to you, but it also means you can get in a cheeky heal if you’re on the brink of death! This is yet another feature I’ve not seen before which allows you to strategically manage your individual units considering you can only move them one at a time – keeping on top of both the offensive and defensive actions is the key to victory.

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Just like God…

Technical
There are very little vocals within the game, other than the occasional one-liners as you pick a unit and the odd briefing from your boss before a mission, but most of the narrative is delivered in small summaries via text. The game does sometimes use video clips from the series, but it’s usually accompanied by music or a narrator, so I don’t know if any of the voice actors who provided lines are the originals from the show or not. However, even with the limited voices, the game still holds up well with the audio as the subtle (short lopping) music in the background and the sound effects are all well-suited and as you’d expect. 

Visually, although not the best looking game I’ve ever played, there is a lot of charm and realism to Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. You can zoom in quite far and back out to a decent distance (something other TRPGs don’t always let you do), as well as rotate a full 360 degrees – again, a simple feature a few games omit. Just like Phantom Doctrine, aiming your weapon adopts a third-person aspect, with the camera up close behind your characters’ shoulder so you get a simulated view of what they’re seeing. I love that the game also has slow-motion death shots and ragdoll physics which kick in as soon as you land the fatal shot, dropping them literally dead in their tracks!

In terms of actual technical details – certain games have displayed a reliance on RND in the past, allowing characters to see/shoot through walls, implementing a feature in which both you and the foe can move into a surrounding square when shooting/being shot – thus increasing the odds of being hit/missing, missing a shot even though the probability is 100%, and other bullsh*t mechanics. Sure, some mechanics in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels are based on random chance, a probability of less than 100 always has a chance of either not hitting or delivering less damage. However, giving you manual control over the Overwatch attacks, and never providing unnatural line-of-sight or the ability to shoot through walls, is a step towards feeling like YOU are in control. 

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Official Trailer:

Final Conclusion:
If you’re looking for a Tactical RPG game which stands out with unique features, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is for you. Having the ability to only move one unit at a time both increases the difficulty and strategic element of the game, forcing you to think ahead and plan your moves effectively if you don’t want to permanently lose the units you’ve been training up. Similarly, the manual Overwatch ability ensures that if you miss during a crucial pre-emptive attack, it’s most likely down to you and your ability at being accurate and fast. The game will clearly appeal to fans of the show, but newcomers are also welcomed and kept well informed as you proceed through the story. It’s certainly a game which all TRPG fans should try out.

Whether you’re a fan of the show or never heard of it, if you like the look of it and want to try out a TRPG game with a few unique gameplay mechanics, you can’t go wrong with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. It’s also quite a low price at only £24.99.

If picking up the game on Steam, please consider using our Affiliate link for Green Man Gaming HERE – as of writing this review (21st November), the game is only £18.99 and it’s a Steam redemption code. You’ll pay no more but we get a small commission which helps maintain the site.

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A copy of the game was kindly provided for review purposes

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

£24.99
8.3

Final Score

8.3/10

The Good:

  • - I love the manual Overwatch mechanic as it removes some of the random elements
  • - The fact you only move one person at a time makes the game much more strategic and tactical than similar games
  • - Interesting locations which (as far as I'm aware) are replications of locations you see in the show
  • - You can play the game as either the Cartel or the DEA, both with seperate stories which occasionally meet
  • - Priced rather low for a decent amount of content

The Bad:

  • - The game does get rather difficult with the permadeath and single-unit control
  • - No customisation or load-out options other than levelling up and picking new abilities
  • - The side missions tend to re-use the same maps quite often
  • - Some missions feel a little unfair and one-sided when more and more enemies appear the longer it takes you to eliminate those currently on the screen
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