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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels shows how one bad decision can ruin an entire game

Game design decisions, that is

Kuju/Curve Digital
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels looks like it should play well. It’s a proper video game adaptation of the Netflix series, with detailed animations and cutscenes, and complex maps on which I make the war on drugs an actual, literal war on drugs. It doesn’t walk or talk like shovel-ware.

Somehow, that makes the finished game even more disappointing; it would be much easier to ignore if it was another hastily created piece of marketing designed to hype a show.

Narcos messes with its own core premise — it’s basically XCOM meets Miami Vice — in such a random and unjustified way that it makes everything but the easiest missions frustrating and tedious. In Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, you may play as either an agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or a member of a drug cartel, but you can only move one soldier/cop/bad guy per turn for your side. And you have five characters on your squad to begin the game. You don’t start with, say, three and unlock more.

A DEA agent, wearing body armor, readies his shotgun to fire on a criminal during a raid in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels Kuju/Curve Digital

I was surprised, then infuriated, when I moved my first unit (a Search Bloc soldier; Narcos fans will find plenty of familiar characters and lingo here). After positioning him behind cover, I tapped a bumper button to select the next guy in my squad so I could send him to support the first unit’s flank.

And … nothing. That’s literally it. The player has a pool of action and movement points, which govern how many things you can do in a given round; that’s fairly standard, and understandable. But once you activate one of your units — reload, move a couple of squares — you can only spend your remaining action and movement points on that same unit. No one else on your squad will be able to do anything that round.

XCOM devotees, or strategy fans in general, know that ain’t how it’s supposed to go. It makes any kind of combined action — a pincer move, flanking the enemy, or safely approaching a corner — next to impossible to plan or execute, and reduces the combat to a series of one-on-one gun battles, devoid of the intrigue and entertainment found in better turn-based strategy games.

Given the enormous range my enemies can cover, I felt forced to choose between letting my point man take fire (and my enemies, particularly the Narcos, were accurate from down the block, through an open window, with an Uzi) while I brought up support, or fall back and sacrifice a second opportunity in favor of coordinated action. Because the enemies are so mobile, falling back isn’t much of an option either. I once watched helplessly as a hood leaped across an alley, hung a right, limped (I might add) into the rooftop office where I was hiding, and shot me point blank from across a desk. Many times I would try to pick off a guy at range, fail or only knock his health down minimally, and realize that all I’d done was direct the rather dull AI to charge my position on the next turn. Narcos feels like a game where I am supposed to sacrifice chess pieces, just without any of the strategy of chess.

The only way to keep enemies from pursuing you is to run to a place where you have an advantage in numbers. That will usually be to the four characters you left behind in the staging area, because the engagements begin quickly. I was either in range of a target, or one was in my sights, within the first turn in just about every round I played. The shoot-or-be-shot nature of one-move combat never gave me a chance to work proactively, much less strategically.

A great example of this came in an early DEA mission, on a quiet city block turned deadly by night. Narcos will expose hostile forces’ positions to you with a trigger press right off the bat, another variance that takes away tension and decision-making. One was in the back office of a bar. Just getting two of my units to the same doorway was a time-consuming chore. Even then, because of the one-unit-per-turn restriction in Narcos there was no way I could send one into the office, guns blazing, and finish him off with his buddy, taking advantage of the superior numbers. Someone was going to end up getting shot there.

Overhead view of a favela on Narcos: Rise of the Cartels’ playing map Kuju/Curve Digital

The other variations in Narcos’ XCOM-ish gameplay looked like they have some potential, though. There’s the Counterattack capability, which takes XCOM’s Overwatch command and turns it into an FPS minigame. Most units (except heavies, for example) have a reaction zone, and an enemy crossing into that zone will trigger the Counterattack game, where the player has a limited amount of time to get the crosshairs over a moving target and fill it full of lead.

Counterattack, of course, draws from a third pool of points, and it’s nearly impossible to keep track of who has what available as you play. So this, again, is not anything that can be used strategically — like taking someone who has a buffed Counterattack radius and full use of it and setting them up as a sentry. Narcos is a purely reactive game. Its systems just don’t support the ability to think ahead.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels succeeds completely at just one thing: It makes me interested in watching the Netflix series. The game had a lot of potential, and at least superficially it looked like something that may be better than the standard advertorial we’ve come to expect from this kind of tie-in game. Unfortunately, the end result is a cautionary tale about how one poor design decision can ruin just about everything else a game has going for it.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is now available on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using final “retail” download codes provided by Curve Digital. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.