Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Review19 Nov 2019 0
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Review
Released 19 Nov 2019
It pays to be up-front about this: Narcos is not your typical IP adaptation. The concept of law agents vs criminals is solid, the use of the TV series unique quirks creates a great atmosphere, and the production values are, surprisingly, quite high. Unfortunately, it is also severely undermined by two small design decisions that turn the whole game into an unfortunate slog.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a turn-based strategy game similar to XCOM, but where you only move one unit per activation in an IGO/UGO style a la Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus. Featuring two campaigns covering the illegal enterprises of the Narcos and the legal overtures of the United States’s DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration -- not 'Agency', as the game wrongly states), the title allows you to alternate between both sides of the conflict at your leisure, using separate save games to keep things clean.
The first thing that hits you when you launch the game is how closely it tries to emulate the TV series. The intro video features an interesting montage similar to the Netflix show’s opening, narrated by someone who does a very good job of sounding like Agent Murphy in both delivery and tone. As soon as the main menu appears, the theme song by Brazilian musician Rodrigo Amarante kicks in, lending an undeniable air of authenticity to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, that’s about as far as it goes. The game itself is heavily focused on tactical engagements of the player's 6-man squad versus large numbers of hostiles. Unlike XCOM, Narcos only allows you to move and shoot a single soldier at a time through the use of only two 'resources' -- an action point for shooting, reloading, and using abilities; and a movement point for things such as moving or resting to regain health.
Narcos changes the formula slightly by replacing the now-classic Overwatch with something called 'Counteract': a charge-like ability that allows you to manually fire -- third person shooter style -- at any enemy that enters your field of vision. The mechanics of using this ability are a little bit convoluted; you recharge half of a full token for every movement/action point not used. The Counteract only recharges on one of the six units you have selected at the end of the turn, which makes everything unbelievably slow.
Alternating activations is a legitimate design choice for tactical games, like in Mechanicus. BattleTech uses it as well, but the key is to design around it to keep things engaging. Narcos’ limitations in terms of its own design choices make it much, much less tactical -- and fun -- than contemporary titles. By shoehorning dozens of abilities into two choices that are immediately reacted to by an enemy unit, the game forbids any sort of interplay, ambush, or tactical manoeuvre from being executed. Instead, it behaves more like high-stakes chess, and it ends up being a painfully slow, frustrating experience that discourages more advanced strategies.
The mix of 'one unit per turn' and movement/action point resources actually work against each other, and often means that you only move one or two units out of the six in your squad. Most enemies will start holding defensive positions and then charge forward as you approach, which makes it impractical to waste six turns moving six people into position as the enemy freely takes potshots at the person who ends up closest. This person is unable to do anything further without wasting the turn for every other member of the squad. This also means that once within weapons range, engagements become duels with very few options besides attacking or falling back.
The most annoying thing about this arrangement is that it slows down gameplay to the point where most missions are long, largely unexciting affairs. It’s like the developers played other tactical strategy games and took all the wrong lessons. XCOM is often hailed as a ‘gold-standard’ for games like these, and perhaps it’s a tad unfair to compare it against what is essentially a tie-in game designed to raise awareness for a TV show; but it’s surprising how easy developers in general (not just the Narco devs Kuju) tend to miss the point of what made XCOM so good. The constraints imposed by the design decisions feel very misguided, which is a shame because there’s still a lot to like about Rise of the Cartels.
The combat abilities are interesting and seem to be trying to make up for the lack of tactical freedom: Passive skills like extra Counteracts or free actions on kills, active items like frag grenades, even the ability to give Counteract tokens to surrounding units. In order to keep those all balanced, Narcos divides soldiers into six different classes that are mirrored on each side of the conflict (DEA’s Grenadiers are the Narcos’ Specialists, for example). The squad management part happens outside missions, in a token management layer called the 'war room'.
Comprised of a big map of Colombia, a squad roster screen, and some mementos, the war room acts as a mission selection and character update interface. Main missions are mostly linear, often requiring a number of side missions to be completed before they’re unlocked to be played. It’s a bit superficial, as roster size and level caps are tied to campaign progression, which in turn is limited by the number of missions available. This also means injured people that you don’t pay to immediately heal can be out of commission for a whole ‘chapter’. Like the tactical side, the war room is not as fluid as it could be, although it’s a nice touch how each campaign has its own war room.
In the end, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a game with good production values, let down by a tactical layer that doesn’t seem to have been fully thought-through. There are impressively few flaws here, but the ones it does have are so key to the nature of the game that they end up dragging down the whole experience. Like Pablo Escobar’s intrinsic arrogance which led to his downfall, so does Narcos’ rather basic assumptions ruin what could have been a very exciting tie-in game.