Narcos: Rise of the Cartels takes the John Wick Hex approach and doubles down on turn based strategy, in favour of being a typical run of the mill third person licensed effort. The end result is mostly successful, with a few bumps along the way
It's a tricky proposition, taking a well-established series (with a sizeable fan base) and adapting it faithfully without straying too far from its own identity. Sure, Curve Digital and developer Kuju could have easily gone down the predictable route, churning out a safe cover shooter and thrown in some cut scenes from the show. But Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, despite creaking occasionally against the restrictions of a more indie level budget, manages to deliver solid gameplay and some interesting ideas. This is turn based strategy, with a couple of real time wrinkles.
You have to balance the amount of actions you can perform per turn, your position in the level, the amount of protection offered by your chosen piece of cover, and any potential flanking moves by your opponents. The aforementioned extra flourishes come into play when an enemy wanders in to your line of sight. There's a chance for an instant kill shot style takedown, which is tied to a meter that tracks previous successful actions. The camera snaps into an over the shoulder view, with a free aim cursor, and you can unload on a moving target and potentially secure a kill.
It successfully injects an element of pace into a genre that can traditionally be quite stilted. Maintaining pace and flow with turn based strategy is a tricky tightrope act to walk, but the takedown system in Narcos, and relatively brief enemy turn cycle, goes a long way toward addressing this. There isn't a huge amount of time to breathe, and given the high stakes nature of the DEA's battle against the Cartel, this approach fits the source material.
The introductory cutscenes draw clips from the first season of the Netflix show, but subsequent sequences are made bespoke for the game. It's a nice tip of the hat to the source material, as the game essentially dramatises the entirety of the first season. Once your first run through the main campaign is complete, you can switch gears and play from the Cartel's perspective. It's a welcome example of added value in a strictly single player title.
Although the voice acting is generally pretty good, character models suffer from a lack of detail. They're a tad bland, which can take you out of the moment. Fortunately, the soundtrack and environmental detail both fare much better, with subtle use of music and decent texture work ensuring there's enough polish here to elevate the experience.
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a solid, if unremarkable effort, that ticks enough boxes to lift it above your average licensed cash in. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with it from a mechanical point of view, but certain corners have been cut with regards to presentation, and you'll likely manage to blast your way through the game in a matter of hours.