I’ll come straight out of the gate with it; I’ve not watched the Netflix TV show Narcos. Set against the backdrop of the USA’s war on drugs, Narcos follows the stories of members of the South American drug cartels as well as the DEA agents working to bring them down. Apparently it’s very good. What it isn’t is an obvious candidate for a video game tie-in and yet, here we are.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels follows alongside the events of the TV show (how closely it must be left to fans of the show to ascertain) and lets you play both sides of the conflict; either taking on the mantle of the DEA or picking up the AK-47 of the cartels. What I assume are popular and important characters from the show appear to relate parts of the story and you can even play as them. If all you ever wanted after watching the show was to step into the shoes of Javier Pena or Steve Murphy (characters that IMDB reliably inform us are part of the show) then this game has you covered.
All of this is perfectly pleasant but doesn’t really explain exactly how you make a game out of a TV show like Narcos. Developer Kuju (Marvel Ultimate Alliance) has decided that a turn-based squad shooter firmly camped on the lawn of X-Com is the way to go. I might not know much about Narcos but I have played hundreds of hours of X-Com, X-Com 2 and a whole host of other turn-based squad shooters. So you can trust me when I say that Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is not coming for the crown.
You’ll spend the majority of the game in tactical missions where you’ll guide a small squad of DEA agents and local support – or cartel hitters – through colourful, characterful and fairly repetitive battlefields full of cover and enemies. Objectives on these missions vary but usually effectively amount to “kill everything not on your side”. Sometimes there are informants to rescue, evidence to gather, resources to destroy or high priority targets to assassinate but the gameplay is such that you can effectively ignore these. Trying to do anything other than kill every enemy on the map before you do anything else usually results in disaster. From a gameplay perspective this isn’t ideal but there is also the separate issue that, for a TV show that I can only assume takes a very grey view of the particularly conflict in question, this is a very black and white approach. Nobody in Narcos gets arrested and violence appears to be the only solution to every problem. Contrast this with This is the Police’s approach to arrests and subduing criminals and it casts a somewhat unpleasant light on Narcos.
Accepting that your role in the game is that of executioner, the next question is about the tools and weapons at your disposal. Heading into each mission the player will populate their squad with a special leader character and then four grunts from a roster that increases in size (if not variety) over the course of the game. I first played as the DEA (the game will not let you play as the Cartels until you’ve played a tutorial with the DEA, sensibly enough) who have access to five different classes. There are Spec Ops snipers, demolitions squaddies with grenade launchers, fast and lightly-armed policia, assault-focused DEA agents and the general all-rounders of the Search Bloc.
Throughout the course of the game these soldiers will level up and gain access to new abilities, some powerful, some effectively pointless, most somewhere in between. The game does give these different squaddies names and there is a limited variety to their appearance (though no ability to customise either) but it’s not enough for the player to form connections to any of them. Narcos: Rise of the Cartels really misses a trick here. Building a bond with and investment in the members of your team is one of the simple but key reasons that games like Xcom succeed.
Lack of ownership and customisation is only one reason that I struggled to form connections with the squad, however. The other is that Narcos: Rise of the Cartels can be brutal. Your soldiers are unlikely to survive through the campaign as usually a couple of hits is all it takes to kill them and the maps offer very little by way of places to stow them safely after they’ve been hit. The AI will relentlessly pursue your injured squadmates as well. None of this is a problem from a gameplay perspective. This level of individual jeopardy is actually one of the best things about the game and something it does differently to other games in its field.
Kuju have done a few other interesting things to make Narcos: Rise of the Cartels stand out. Instead of activating your whole team before the enemy takes its turn, Narcos adopts an I-go-you-go system. What that means is that the player can choose a member of their team to activate, moving and shooting as usual. After this, the AI will activate a member of their team and do the same before priority passes back to the player to utilise one of their squaddies.
This is an interesting, potentially ground-breaking addition of something that has been fundamental to tabletop skirmish games for some time. Unfortunately the implementation feels a bit off here, primarily because there are no restrictions on who the player or the AI can activate. This means you can just keep activating the same unit and have them charge around the map shotgunning everyone in sight. This would have been better implemented if the game made you activate every member of your squad before you could activate your first unit again.
Still, Kuju must get points for trying something different in a sub-genre that can feel stale at times. Another innovation in Narcos is the addition of a sprinkling of direct control for the player. The game’s overwatch system (a standard feature of turn-based squad shooters that allows a unit to shoot during an enemy’s action) is called counteracting. When an enemy unit’s movement triggers counteract on one of their units, the player takes direct control of the firing unit, having to manually aim and shoot at a moving target. This feature is not going to win any awards for smooth third-person shooter gameplay but it is another very interesting and fun idea that shows Kuju thinking outside the box with Narcos.
The novelty of these additions can’t really get over the shortcomings of the tactical gameplay, however, which comes with a variety of issues. These range from unclear lines of fire, occasionally spawning enemies with no warning, randomness in triggering the aforementioned counteract reactions and lack of clarity around what is a useable part of the map and what is just decoration. All of these would be no major problem if it wasn’t for Narcos biggest problem, however, which is that it gets quite boring, quite quickly. Your units don’t feel unique or special and their levelling up abilities, by and large, are quite small perks rather than anything that fundamentally opens up different tactical options. This means that missions start to blend together very quickly (the lack of variety on objectives doesn’t help) and soon enough the game becomes stale.
The good news on that front is that Narcos presents to you an exciting option. Fed up with playing as the DEA? Just jump into the other side of the conflict and pick up the Cartels to play with. The story interludes for the Cartel missions are completely different with more characters and fresh perspectives. Unfortunately, and this is a big disappointment, that is where the differences end. As the Cartels you have access to 5 classes; the exact same 5 classes as the DEA but with different names and skins. They even level up in pretty much exactly the same way. There is no functional difference between playing as the DEA and the Cartels except that the leader characters have some different, unique abilities.
The disappointments for Narcos don’t end there. The tactical gameplay, repetitive and shallow as it is, is the Mariana trench of design compared to the strategic level of Narcos. The player’s success in tactical missions results in them gaining financial rewards to spend on new recruits. That’s all that money can be spent on. There are no options for different or improved weapons or equipment or intel to change the parameters of tactical missions. There is no research or information gathering to be done on the Cartel activities. All the player can do with their hard-earned cash is buy more units to fill out the roster; more units that are not really very different from the ones you already have.
Despite the fact that their are quite a few negative things to be said about Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, Kuju really must be applauded for the some of the innovation on display here. The core of the game feels solid and with some refinement and (quite a bit) of tactical and strategic depth added this system could spawn a really great game. I’m hopeful that Kuju can take this template (or another developer can build on the ideas) and deliver something fresh, deep and essential to turn-based tactical squad games. Sadly, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is not that game.