Netflix is trying to crack the gaming industry. The latest evidence of that effort is Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, a turn-based strategy game adapted from the well-regarded crime drama series. However, as with Stranger Things 3: The Game from earlier this year, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is disappointingly safe as both an adaptation and a game. Fans looking for a new way to engage with the Narcos storyworld will find enjoyment, but the game will likely have little appeal for anyone else.
To begin with, despite being a close adaptation of the first season of the show, the game’s storytelling is perfunctory. Live-action footage from the series and occasional in-engine cutscenes are interspersed with voice-overs from the main characters that provide context for upcoming campaign missions. An intriguing story may be buried amidst the noise, but the delivery method is so dry that maintaining attention or interest is a real struggle. Adding to the problems is the absence of characterisation; Steve Murphy and Pablo Escobar may be riveting figures in the show, but their presence is not so powerful when reduced to descriptive voice-overs. This inability to engage the player within the story leads to a sense that narrative cohesion is lacking, which is reinforced by the campaign structure.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels features two campaigns: one following the Narcos and the other following the DEA. After the initial mission, players can switch between the two at will, though doing so does little to improve the narrative experience. The reason is that both campaigns are plump with padding. Unlocking each campaign mission requires first the completion of several random, repetitive objectives. Ostensibly, these side missions are about gathering intelligence pertaining to the other side of the drug war, but their procedurally generated nature leaves that framing flawed. Instead, the campaigns are extended beyond the point they continue to be fully enjoyable.
The main reason for the growing sense of tiredness is the shortage of variation. The game contains only a handful of mission types, and each of these has only a handful of maps across which they take place (though a balance is struck between open and tight environments). Randomisation of starting zones softens the monotony without being enough to overcome it entirely. Familiarity results, and these side missions actually become easier as time goes on as a result. The key campaign missions do shake things up with unique level layouts and sub-objectives, but they are too little amidst a sea of repetition.
As for the strategy elements, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels also feels designed for a relatively casual audience. Anyone seeking the depth and difficulty of the XCOM series or Phantom Doctrine should look elsewhere. In either campaign, players compose a team of up to five units from a selection of five archetypes, including long-range assault soldiers, close-range shotgunners, and grenadiers. While each unit can gain new passive traits and active abilities by levelling up, basic statistics such as damage, health, or movement range do not improve. Furthermore, loadouts cannot be altered, as no additional equipment is available. The result is a curiously anaemic experience, especially given the vast amount of money and skill points that players amass from completing missions and the absence of anything to spend them on.
The play experience is similarly muted, though relatively fast-paced. Players and the AI take turns moving one unit at a time, which ensures that missions play out quickly. Reinforcing the responsiveness is the inclusion of overwatch and killshot mechanics where players receive a over-the-shoulder view of a unit’s crosshairs when inflicting damage. Nevertheless, most firearm attacks do rely on the traditional hit percentages and RNG calculations. Each unit also earns additional abilities, including first aid and overwatch boosts, but none of these feel unique or particularly useful in most instances.
A part of that comes down to uninspired design. In addition to being repetitious, many levels are quite small, with the layouts and mechanics doing little to punish attempts at relentless forward momentum, especially as the player’s units get stronger. Some of the more complex level designs might benefit from tweaks, as the isometric viewpoint can cause difficulties in seeing where characters can move, no matter which way the map is turned. Furthermore, the AI sometimes appears deeply flawed. At times, enemy units will move randomly between two points for seemingly no purpose, while others will remain in areas where death is assured. When these quirks crop up, they rob mission completion of any sense of satisfaction. One other issue that appears intermittently is that the game recognises mouse alignment incorrectly, leading to frustrations. Thankfully, this issue can usually be resolved by switching to another window without needing to quit the game entirely.
Despite everything written so far, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels does exactly what it aims to. The game is not an attempt to rewrite the strategy rulebook, but rather a gateway drug for anyone not familiar with the genre who is already hooked on Narcos. In that context, the title is solid: an entry-level strategy game that eases players in. The shallowness stems from the mass appeal and, as such, is a strength. However, those concessions will not spark joy for strategy veterans or anyone looking for a meaty, engaging experience.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.