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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels – The Switch Island Review

Star Trek gave us tri-dimensional chess, Harry Potter gave us wizard’s chess and The Prisoner gave us human chess. Now, Kuji Entertainment brings you drug lord chess in the form of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels on Nintendo Switch.

Set during the events of the first series of Netflix’s Narcos, take the role of the DEA (initially) or Escobar’s cartel you guide your squad through a succession of 18 well-rendered areas of 1980s Colombia with set objectives. So far so good.

The introductory sequence looks excellent, perfectly melding real video taken from the TV series and computer generated fillers. Watching the story outlined in either handheld or docked mode was equally impressive. I had high hopes for the game itself.

Unfortunately, that’s where the graphical positives ended. As mentioned before, the levels themselves are relatively well rendered but the character models are poor and the amount of effort given to their animation appears minimal. Rise of the Cartels looks as though it was designed as a mobile game and has been hurriedly ported to consoles with stylings that would only have been an average performer on Gamecube. The issues with character models is accentuated when you are zoomed in during a Counteraction scene. Counteractions are an interesting addition to the gameplay and allow the player to enter a first person shooter mode, aim your fire with the control stick as your enemy runs toward you and try to pull off a kill shot manually. Though this is a welcome innovation in the general gameplay it was disappointing that the enemy’s runs and falls happen in a seemingly predetermined way. There were several moments that while playing the game I experimented with trying to hit enemies in different areas and yet the eventual fall seemed to happen as though I had hit them dead on. These stilted animations just left me questioning exactly how much control I had over proceedings and ultimately how much actually depended on tactical aptitude.

Like I said, Rise of the Cartels plays more like a game of chess than many other turn based tactical titles. Each turn you are able to move one of your team to one of the available spots on the grid and complete one attack. The opponent then does the same and so on. The concept is not a bad one and at times this limitation certainly does increase the amount of strategic thinking needed to complete the level. My issue with this is not so much with the concept, but with the choice of game for its use. I’ve played a lot of turn based tactical games, most allow you to control and move all available units each turn and those that don’t have justification within the story or are simply closer to tower defence. Rise of the Cartels has no thematic justification for the restriction and frankly it just makes no sense to me. If Pablo Escobar had only been able to move one person in his cartel at a time I doubt it would have taken quite so long to bring him down. In a game of chess the single piece movement works because there are clear definitions of movement, play area and strength; though pieces move differently they do so within the confines of a square board and a definable area of threat to each player, as a result you can plan tactically and be creative in your approach. Unfortunately Rise of the Cartels lacks these definitions. The distance characters on both sides can move varies, the level size and terrain varies and most annoyingly, the amount of damage possible is poorly defined. Sorry Kuji, but if someone stood 6 inches from you and shot you twice with a shotgun there is no way you’d be able to limp off behind a box and continue.

It is possible to upgrade your characters throughout the game and this can come in useful in trying to combat the general gameplay issues by gaining new Actions and Traits. These abilities vary from character to character dependent on their ‘type’ (e.g. Special Forces, DEA, Police etc.) and can give you extra movements, damage and resistance. By the time you reach level 18 you should be able to compensate for the shortcomings so noticeable in the early game. So now you’re thinking ‘great, it may be tough but I can get a really good team together’ and yes, that is true in theory, but ultimately not in practice. This is no Final Fantasy, there is no way back when a member of your team falls in combat, once they’re gone, they’re gone. All that effort into building up their strength wasted. Back to square one. I found it immensely frustrating that on this point, Kuji went for realism. If this were a mobile game only, when your men fell, that would be the moment when you’d be presented with a micro-transaction screen to bring them back.

With such rich source material, both in terms of the hit series and from history, I had hoped that Rise of the Cartels would be an absorbing and engaging game, unfortunately, it fails to draw the player in. The permanent loss of characters killed in combat, though realistic, does detract from the feeling of attachment or engagement with your team. Instead of taking care with each member with the objective of pulling through together, when characters are so disposable, you inevitably end up treating them as such. With so little investment in those supporting your objectives, the game loses the player investment required for full tactical consideration. Graphically it varies wildly between solid cut scenes, a soulless war office, solid environments and poor character animations. The gameplay masquerades as tactical but soon descends into mundanity as a result of both the gameplay and the mindless AI and of course the way it veers toward realism only when it hurts the player.

Rise of the Cartels could have been a good game, minor changes to the rules of play could have compensated for the graphical shortcomings. I spent a lot of time with this game playing as both the DEA and the Cartel and it’s disappointing to say that I don’t think I’ll be heading back to Colombia any time soon.

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