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You don’t start a war on drugs and not expect some casualties along the way. If ever there was a stark reminder of just how deadly a drug epidemic can be, it has to be Netflix’s Narcos series that chronicled the rise and (spoiler for a two-decade old death by now) fall of Pablo Escobar. El Patron as he was known to his loyal minions, Escobar managed to carve out an empire for himself that made him one of the richest people in the world, all off the back of blood, terror and the west’s insatiable demand for Colombian marching powder.

Think you could do the same if you were given the resources and manpower to be the next big Czar of nose candy? That’s the question that Narcos: Rise of the Cartels asks, while also giving you the chance to flex the long arm of the law through whatever brutal means you deem necessary to get the job done.

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At first glance, Narcos seems like perfect fusion of source material and a decision to focus on a genre whose veins have been rarely mined in this day and age. Pulling heavily from the Netflix series for its audio and video inspiration, Narcos remixes that saga of the DEA taking on the Mendellin Cartel into a strategy affair, one which makes ample use of the format set by XCOM to establish a more strategic war wherein the war on drugs boils down to a game of cocaine chess.

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Which is a perfect description of the biggest weakness in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels.

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Yes it’s a strategy game, but one that happens to be excruciatingly slow thanks to a decision to only allow players to move one unit at a time. With a meagre pool of action points to spend, you’ll often find yourself stuck relying on a single unit to get the job while others flounder behind, watering down the strategy elements like New York nasal powder cut with rat poison.

That robs the game of so much opportunity, so much momentum that other XCOM-inspired titles have managed to overcome. A complete lack of unit co-ordination means that any idea of setting up classic pincer attacks and ambushes when you flank an enemy, is pretty much null and void thanks to this lack of gameplay mechanic.

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This weakness is compounded even further by your enemies having a range of mobility that is obscene, often circling in on your position to gun down a hapless Search Bloc party soldier with a quick spray of an SMG. It doesn’t help matters either when you’re given a chance to fight back and you soon realise that an impoverished drug addict from the dingiest of shanty towns happens to have more health than a well-trained soldier.

Sure, there is a counterattack mode that allows you to kill the opposition if they wander into your range of view with a quick burst of FPS action, but it’s an idea that feels at odds with the format that Narcos: Rise of the Cartels dresses itself up in. There’s a range of other issues that pop up frequently during either side of the Search Bloc or Cartel campaigns: Enemies have insane marksmanship skills with the most unreliable of weapons and the fight or flight strategy usually boils down to tricking the boneheaded AI into chasing you back to your starting point where the rest of the gang is.

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There’s not much to do in your hideout between missions save for some rudimentary leveling up of your troops and the variety between units boils down to a quick reskin at best. It’s a pity, because with all of those faults there would have been an enjoyable game here were it not for that series of gameplay mechanic decisions that kills all momentum.

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Instead of finely tuned tactical espionage action, each stage can easily be resolved provided that you’re willing to turn one of your units into a sacrificial lamb of sorts while the rest of the squad hangs back and racks up kills. It’s a lack of overall variety that quickly wears out its welcome after you’ve done a handful of missions and begin recycling the formula, that makes for a boring dive into the world of drugs.

Last Updated: November 25, 2019

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels was shaping up to be a fascinating advert for Netflix’s hit series, but the overall quid pro quo bend of strategy ultimately makes it the shallowest of tie-ins. This is one Search Bloc party that you can count me out for.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels was reviewed on Nintendo Switch
41 / 100

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