Review – Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

In the timeless words of Adam Jensen, I never asked for this. When I think of TV Shows that I would like to see get a video game adaptation, Narcos was never even a consideration. Netflix clearly thought differently, so here we are. In the XCOM vein of strategy, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels roughly retells the story of the show’s first season across two campaigns. In one you play as DEA agent Steve Murphy in his war against the Medellín Cartel. The other has you take up arms as El Patrón himself as he builds up his cartel while dealing with increasingly annoying American interference.

If you’ve ever played a game like this, then you know how this one works. Grid-based movement, half/full cover management, unforgiving shot probability, the works. There are a handful of newish mechanics and a few reworked familiar ones, but they don’t exactly help the game. Most notably, you and the AI can only move and attack with one unit per round. I think this was intended to create a more strategic game, akin to chess where every move counts. Instead it just makes the game longer as it takes forever to move your squad anywhere. Or shorter if you just use a single unit to clear the board, which I found to be overall the best strategy. Either way, this single decision quickly kills momentum early on and makes every battle feel the same. It’s still fun, but there’s so much better options you could be playing.


I really like the design of the DEA War Room, it gives me flashbacks to PS1 Medal of Honor.

Overwatch works a bit differently as well, also to mixed results. Called “Overact” for some reason, it’s not a stance you take but a meter that builds up when you don’t take actions. It triggers when an enemy moves in front of you as usual, but instead of automatically firing shots, you do instead. Using the most fiddly third person shooting ever, you can unload a full clip into the moving target. It’s a fun gimmick the first few times, but quickly becomes annoying due to poor controls and an unwieldy camera. It could have been a great idea to speed up gameplay, had it been better implemented.

It only counts for units you manually skip turns with too, so those units you aren’t using don’t build it up. If you thought you could position units and then have them act as human turrets, too bad. That would make them useful and the gameplay more strategic, and we can’t have that. Instead what you do is skip the first few turns of every level with your chosen superunit and build up the meter. Don’t worry about the the AI interfering with this strategy either, as they will literally run in circles waiting for you. The AI is super passive overall and almost never plays aggressively. Feel free to pull back and reload, heal, wait out cooldowns, whatever you desire at your discretion.


It bothers me way more than it should that the second K in Karaoke is uppercase.

One of the core parts of XCOM is the strategic layer, which is completely missing here. There is some limited roster management, but it’s mostly forgettable. Buy a unit, use them as fodder to protect your Leader, which is the only one that matters, then replace them. You can’t customize them, not even name them, so don’t worry about growing attached. There is a money mechanic, with an apparent risk/reward type thing, except you can’t run out of money. Any time you get close, you’ll get emergency funding to bail you out. Every single time. They might as well have given you infinite money, because that’s essentially what you have as is. The only currency you genuinely collect is skill points, which the game is generous with.

The only differences between the campaigns are cosmetic. Unit classes are the same, but named differently. Weapons the same, skills exactly the same, same strategies, even the same maps sometimes. The latter is actually kind of cool, because you’ll be playing the same scenario as the opposite campaign but as the enemy. The main campaign scenarios for each side are mostly different however, and are accompanied by clips from the show, which is by far the high point. If only there was a way to just watch the clips, and skip the only moderately fun strategy game.

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Shotguns are the best weapons in the game. Fill your squad with DEA Agents for DEA and Sicario for Narcos, and the game is basically over.

As far as media tie-ins go, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels could have been much worse. It’s certainly no Iron Man 2. There’s a handful of good ideas and a genuinely fun gameplay base. Which makes the clearly not playtested design decisions and half-hearted customization options that much more frustrating, because there is a good game here. Had it been given a bit more time, it could have ended up like Mario + Rabbids, something no one ever wanted, but still ending up fantastic. As it is, the best way to experience Narcos is still far and away the fantastic TV show.

Graphics: 4.0

This game simply does not look good. However, it runs well and overall I have seen much worse.

Gameplay: 5.0

Standard XCOMesque strategy is let down by easily exploitable AI and bizarre design choices.

Sound: 3.5

The voice acting is truly terrible while the soundtrack is just generic.

Fun Factor: 7.0

Surprising mission and map variety alongside tried and true strategy gameplay keep this one afloat.

Final Verdict: 5.5

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is available now on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

Reviewed on PS4.

A copy of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels was provided by the publisher.