Remember when licensed games used to be all the rage? A generation ago, practically every film worth its salt had a tie-in video game, and while there were the occasional good ones – GoldenEye 007 anyone? – for the most part, they were a cheap and forgettable way to boost your Gamerscore while simultaneously filling up the shelves in your CeX. Nowadays, TV is the big boy on the entertainment block and we’re slowly seeing some new attempts to – shock horror – produce video game companions pieces that actually complement the source material. And with its mostly well-recreated levels and familiar cast of characters, developer Kuju Entertainment is looking to do just that with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels.
Set during the events of the show’s first season, Narcos splits its campaign into 18 main story chapters and a healthy selection of side missions, with the opportunity to play as both DEA and as El Patron’s drug-peddling Medellin Cartel. It would have been tempting to waste the potential of such a beloved license and produce a mindless and instantly forgettable shooter, but instead we’re treated to a turn-based tactical experience that uses familiar characters (with some bargain-basement voice actors filling in for the likes of Pedro Pascal) and snippets of footage from the show itself.
Missions vary in length and objective – some require you to fend off waves of enemies or plant a surveillance bug, while others focus on assassinating key individuals or escaping from a specific location – but they all boil down to the same formula. Build and upgrade a squad of units and take them into a turn-based battle while the dark cloud of permadeath looms overhead. However, a key difference to many other turn-based games is the fact each turn alternates, so you can only move one member of your squad per turn. It’s a mechanic that makes every move a tense affair as you weigh up moving one unit around to flank another, while potentially leaving another open to the same tactic from the enemy. It also makes for something of a slower experience, that can often be a little less engaging than the likes of, say, Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics.
It’s very much in the same vein as XCOM and its many imitators, with six different character classes to utilise and upgrade. You can take up to five soldiers into battle, and much like Firaxis Games’ seminal series, each class comes with their own strengths and weaknesses that make them ideally suited to certain roles or scenarios. The Enforcer, for instance, is ideal for hitting multiple enemies for crowd control (perfect for dealing with units rushing in for an ambush), while the Lookout can identify enemies from a greater distance. Permadeath is always there, as are persistent injuries, with any character perishing for good if you make a false move or run out Counteractions.
With so many enjoyable and deeply challenging tactics games on Switch – including the likes of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden - Deluxe Edition and Hard West, to name but a few – Narcos has to do more than just take some cues from tabletop gaming. The aforementioned Counteractions are one such attempt to break the mould, offering the ability to briefly take control of one of your units mid-turn and unleash a barrage of shots at the enemy in real-time. These over-the-shoulder moments deliver a merciful opportunity to take out a dangerous enemy before they move into an advantageous position or pull off a Kill Shot when an enemy is in retreat. You have to earn such an ability over the course of a mission, so they’re often the trump card you use most sparingly.
The alternating turn mechanic works well in some games, but its chess-like structure fails to properly gel in Narcos, mainly because the enemy AI you’re up against is so predictably moronic. Most enemy units will just rush you, opening them up to Counteractions, or simply attack the closest available unit, regardless of the tactical options a room or street may present. Despite having so many different classes to choose from, both main missions and side missions (with the latter offering short quests that deliver extra cash to spend on the longer story outings), most missions are relatively simple to beat when you realise the AI has all the tactical intelligence of a bag of cold gravy.
As hard as it tries to recreate the tense drama that’s made the Netflix series such a hit, Kuju’s digital incarnation does suffer from some graphical issues. From its cutscenes to in-mission gameplay, Narcos looks like something from the previous generation with ugly character models and stilted animations – something that really stands out when you’re zoomed in to perform a Counteraction. Thankfully, the traditional overhead tactics view helps negate these visuals somewhat, and it’s an issue present on all versions of the game, not just Switch. There are some issues with blurred assets, but thankfully we encountered very few issues with performance.
Considering how integral the back-and-forth tussle between El Patron and DEA is to the show, recreating such a violent game of chess in 'tactics' form seems like a match made in heaven. But even with some welcome gameplay twists – namely those real-time Kill Shots and Counteractions – the slow nature of its single-unit turn mechanic and the totally unremarkable AI makes this generous offering of missions far less exciting than it should be. As a genre, a turn-based tactics setup really suits the cat and mouse nature of this real-life-inspired cartel war; it's just a shame certain elements let it down.