Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Review

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels s a turn-based strategy game developed by Kuju and published by Curve Digital. Based on the popular TV series of the same name you play as either the DEA or the drug cartel to enjoy both perspectives of the conflict. Not having seen the series, which is on my list of things to do, I went in open-minded. Unfortunately, the opening cutscenes did little to help set the scene. I would assume the TV series is better written (it is – ed), as without direct scenes from the show this game has little to make you feel like you are playing in that universe. The graphics outside of the cutscenes don’t feel like a current-generation game, which isn’t the most important thing in this genre admittedly, but they aren’t great.

This genre – turn based tactical action – was probably made most famous by the X-COM series amongst others, but Narcos has now put their own spin on things. With most of these style games, you either move all of units as part of your turn or the turn order is decided by the unit’s speed. In this case, it’s more chess style in that you can only make one unit act in your turn and then the opponent has their turn. Similar to X-COM most of the units have a sentry gauge; once it is filled enough, if an enemy runs across your field of vision you can shoot at them even when it is not your turn. The difference here is the action is semi real-time to add a skill element to the challenge. So, when the sentry mode kicks in the camera pans to 1st person perspective where you need to move the cursor over the enemy and press the button to shoot before they reach their destination. This is a refreshing idea and takes some rigidity out of the game.

The game starts you off playing as the DEA in a tutorial mode to break you in and introduce the sentry mode sequence. You get the option rearrange your squad within the starting area to place them where you need to. Each of your units are different and have their strengths and weaknesses. You can have units with a shotgun with damage but low range, a unit with an assault rifle for long-range but low damage and those with handguns or semi-automatics which are somewhere in the middle. There is usually an objective to each mission like killing all the enemies, retrieving intel or assassinating a particular target. Each of these missions earns you money on completion. This is used to either heal or purchase new recruits, although further in the game you need certain funds to take on particular missions, so you need to be sensible with the money.

With the money element being difficult to manage the further you make it into the game the best way to tackle that challenge is to perform better in the missions by keeping your units alive and uninjured. That, however, is easier said than done, as the difficulty level starts quite high and only gets higher. Each mission has a skull rating to show its difficulty but there are no custom settings to tweak the challenge which I think is an opportunity missed. As with most strategy games of this type, when your unit is in firing range of the enemy you can choose to attack them; depending on the unit you are using and the gun they have, a calculation is made in the form of a percentage of how likely you are to hit them and how much damage you can do. Narcos is also unforgiving in that there is no in-mission save checkpoints, so you must play the whole mission through, with any mistakes you make being very costly.

There is no rewind feature either so if you do make a careless move and are punished for it then you either must abandon the quest and try again or suck it up and play on. Without any chance of a mulligan you think you might be eased into things with the first few levels, but that is not the case as the game punishes you for being too gung-ho as well as being too cautious. For some reason the computer opponent always has an accuracy edge over me. I could be close with a shotgun and still either miss completely or only do partial damage. But the AI with a handgun can hit me from a distance with sniper-like accuracy. Being cautious also comes at a price, as I tried to play defensively and let the enemy run at me so I could take them out with sentry mode, but it seems I took too many turns and the game just said the mission had failed. I didn’t see a timer or a turn limit – it may have not been obvious but regardless it seems trying to hide isn’t an option either.

With that said when you need to be careful with the money, it’s not fair that the computer AI is so accurate. Your units will get injured and some will die as its just unavoidable. But maybe that was the intention as when it comes to drug lords and the police, things were never going to be easy.


Narcos is an OK game with few new ideas brought to the turn-based action strategy genre. But unfortunately, without difficulty tweaks or in-game saves this game starts off tough and just gets harder from there. When you can’t be too cautious or throw caution to the wind it really limits the strategy element and instead means the game relies on luck and repetition to progress.

This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.
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  • Interesting new elements in this genre
  • Simple controls
  • Certainly a challenge
  • Enemy AI is too accurate
  • Graphics feel dated
  • No difficulty slider or in-game save options
Gameplay - 7
Graphics - 5.5
Audio - 6
Longevity - 6
Written by
Gaming, or, games in general, are in my blood. Just shy of an addiction but still an obsession. From opening my mind on the Commodore 64 I have kept up with the generations of gaming, currently residing on the Xbox One. Gamertag: Grahamreaper

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