“Plata o Plomo”. Will it be the silver or the lead?
- Developer: Varsav Game Studios
- Publisher: Bigben Interactive
- Release date:
PS4 and PC on 19th November 2019
Switch on 21st November 2019
Xbox One on 22nd November 2019
- Genre: Turn-based Strategy
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
When you make a movie or TV show tie-in game, it obviously helps to choose not only a good show, to begin with, but also to choose one that has a form that will translate well to an interactive gameplay experience. Here, we have the Netflix original show Narcos being brought to life as Narcos: Rise of the Cartels. If you haven’t seen it (and it is worth watching), Narcos charts the story of the rise to power of Pablo Escobar (referred to as El Patron in-game), the Columbian drug overlord. You don’t have to watch the series to follow the game, although you will feel a stronger attachment to the characters and a familiarity with some of the scenarios if you have seen it. (The game follows the story up to the end of season one.)
There are a few more obvious game types they could have used to make Narcos; first or third-person shooter, a story-driven adventure, or world-builder for example. What you may not have expected, is a tactical turn-based strategy game. It’s a genre that fits surprisingly well to the theme, with each engagement being a relatively small-scale affair that lends itself adequately to portraying the missions the DEA or cartel are undertaking.
You begin your campaign by stepping into the shoes of the DEA, in a brief introductory mission that guides you through the basic mechanics of the game, and after the first few missions, you can then choose to play as the Cartel. Each faction has its own unique campaign of nine main missions and numerous side-missions to complete, each offering a different perspective on the war on drugs.
Many of these missions mirror those available to the opposite faction, albeit with a reversal of the objective. You could be tasked with assassinating or protecting high-profile targets, or destroying or collecting documents. Although each of these missions has a different plot setup, they can be repetitive in their nature and, despite the different backdrops, there only seems to be a limited number of environments that you’ll encounter, each feeling very similar to the last. We even had some side-missions with the same exact layout, albeit with a different objective. Compounding this issue is the fact that the missions themselves all boil down to the same basic tasks and strategies, at least until half-way through each of the factions’ campaigns anyway, when the difficulty kicks it up a notch.
These missions are interspersed with some footage from the show, or with a narrative voice-over that fills you in on the story, and while not as in-depth as the show, it shares many of the major plot points and sets the scene. The audio in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is adequate, and they have hired the original voice actors to reprise their roles and cut in vocals from the show itself, so the majority of the spoken narrative is pretty decent. Unfortunately, when viewed in such small snippets it doesn’t have the same depth or gravitas as the show, and as a result, especially for anyone who doesn’t watch Narcos, it lacks the exposition required to properly follow and enjoy the story.
Each mission begins the same way. In addition to your leader characters, which are named characters from the show (such as Carrillo, Agent Murphy, Poison and Primo), you also have a roster of agents or cartel members to choose from, each with their own class, with different weapons and active or passive abilities. You can select any five of these to take into a mission, including one leader class character. Once you have chosen a well-rounded team to take into battle, it’s time for deployment.
On earlier levels, there is often only one place to deploy your troops, so you can move them into cover as necessary, then begin your mission; however, as you progress there are multiple locations to choose and you must determine which offers the best tactical advantage for your team. Do you spread your team out and flank the enemy, picking them off, or do you maintain close distance with your team, augmenting your attacks with active abilities and perks?
Each turn allows you to complete a limited number of actions with a single unit. You can move, shoot, and use your active abilities each turn, but using abilities prevents you from shooting, and vice-versa shooting prevents you from using healing abilities. This can be unfamiliar territory when you are used to games that allow you to move multiple units per turn, but it doesn’t take long to adapt the strategies required to succeed. There are a number of missions that task you with completing the objective within a set number of turns, which alters the way you must play again, and it’s necessary to take some risks in order to succeed.
Perma-death is a very real factor to consider when sending the troops in, as your regular troops can all too easily be killed off despite your best efforts if you make a mistake. Not only does it make the current mission more difficult when a character dies, but you also lose all of the levelling you have put into your character and have to spend your limited amount of cash on replacements. It’s a great gameplay addition in terms of strategy, as there are situations where simply sending a couple of guys in to take one for the team would get the job done much quicker and easier, but when you’ve spent time and money on building up your troops, it encourages you to look for other methods of engagement that will keep your crew alive.
Leader characters are, thankfully, unaffected by perma-death, although the consequence of their death can be even more of an irritant: if your leader is killed, your mission is failed, and you will have to restart the mission from the beginning. In many scenarios, it’s often best to send your leader in, as their power and a large number of hit-points makes them ideal for sending into the thick of the conflict. This tactic, although often very successful, can sometimes end up with your leader being relentlessly targeted by the enemy. Once they get their sights on you and your health down, they will single-mindedly charge after you, and it can become impossible to reach a safe area regardless of how many friendly units you put between you and them.
As you progress and unlock new troop levels, new tactical options become available via perks that allow you to make multiple moves within a single turn, or move an additional character as well as your selected troop. Some of these perks require your troops to be close together, but from our experience, early in the game, we found it more advantageous to have our troops spread out. To begin with, perks are usually best chosen that provide personal advantages to damage or healing, as the team effect abilities are used less often. Once you advance far enough in the campaign, however, when you have a larger selection of perks and gain access to more difficult missions, you will need to use the perks that allow group healing, multiple moves per turn or those that buff Counteract for example.
Narcos has introduced additional, less conventional gameplay mechanics that actually make a big difference to the flow of the game. Counteract allows you to fire at an opponent during their turn; provided you have earned enough counteract points, and with a little planning, it’s possible to lure opponents into traps. If you position your troops right, you can damage your enemy enough that they will retreat into cover, passing the line of sight of your team. When Counteract kicks in, you enter a third-person view and can aim and shoot at them, doing critical damage. It’s a little inconsistent in its deployment though, with the amount of damage dealt not always matching what you would expect.
Killshot works similarly and allows you to do additional damage if your attack takes an enemy down to one bar of health, again switching to third-person while you make the shot. When you have an opponent separated from their team or are down to the last enemy, knowing you can take them down in a swift assault can make a last-ditch rush attack really pay off.
The biggest problem with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is how painfully slow the game can be as a result of the single-turn mechanic. Even simple missions can take a lengthy amount of time to complete. Healing multiple characters is a pain, and trying to manoeuvre your troops into flanking positions is a tedious affair, especially when any engagement can require full committal of a unit for several turns to resolve. It also creates checkmate situations too often where your unit will die no matter what you do to try and survive. It’s not terrible by any means, but it could have been great had they allowed you to control all of your team.
Being restricted to only moving one character per turn means that rather than play using your full squad, you end up using just a couple of characters that can do high damage output and that have as many hit points as possible. It’s a viable tactic for the first half of the campaign, and done right it’s the most efficient tactic available, but it negates many of the other less effective options and makes what is already somewhat repetitive gameplay even more limited. Thankfully, as the difficulty and therefore challenge increases, the new perks and abilities you unlock open up many more tactical options. It’s still very slow, but it’s far more enjoyable when you have more options available to you.
Visually, the graphics are passable if a little dated. The environments are clear and have plenty of detail to them, even if they aren’t particularly varied. There’s been some smart level designing implemented here too, and enemy character placement is cleverly enough thought out to require a good strategy to win. Character models are a little underwhelming though, and those based off people from the show only bare a passing resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Animations are also jankier than usual for the genre, and in amongst the stilted and stiff animations as your character jumps or climbs, having to wait for a badly injured unit to shuffle their way from cover to cover can drag the game out unnecessarily.
In-game and menu music has a distinctly Columbian vibe, and it’s quite catchy. It’s reminiscent of the show (possibly even from the show?) and sets the tone very well. Ambient sound is subtle but perfunctory yet still manages to carry the missions along without the environments sounding vacant. Gunfire lacks any real bassy notes, instead it sounds quite rattly and hollow. In truth, it’s actually closer to how real gunfire sounds, but it doesn’t pack that Hollywood punch you may be used to. It’s not a major issue, as along with the graphics, the audio plays second fiddle to the strategy elements anyway.
There are no additional game modes, leaderboards or multiplayer options in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, and as such, replayability is quite low. For the duration of your main playthrough, and depending on both how many of the side-missions you do as well as your skill and success rates, you are still likely to get over twenty hours of gameplay.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s not without its problems though, with the pacing of the gameplay being a significant caveat to whether you are likely to enjoy it. The further you progress, the more perks you unlock, the more challenging the missions get, and the more satisfying and entertaining it becomes.
The graphics may not be the best, but the tactical gameplay is very good, and even though it doesn’t bring any significant new features to the genre, fans are likely to have a lot of fun.