Narcos: Rise of the Cartels for Xbox One review: When you completely miss the point

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels
Narcos: Rise of the Cartels (Image credit: Curve Digital)

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels fools the player into thinking that what they're getting is the video game adaptation of the popular Netflix series. The show, which depicted the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar in a gritty, tension-filled way, is a drama first and an action-based war story second. It has tremendous acting talent, which adds to the show as a character study and helps to convey some of the more lackluster material. It's a high stakes series that, more than anything, is about the history of Columbia and the massive influence Escobar had. It's not a war show.

Unfortunately, the game developers got the wrong message.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a real-time strategy game developed by Kuju and published by Curve Digital that has all the basic requirements — Pablo Escobar, clips taken straight out of the show, a plot involving how the DEA is working to take down the cartels — but lacks everything else. The game purports to be an adaptation of the first season and to tell it from two different perspectives, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything related to the show minus some shallow elements. There's not a lot of story, and little of what made the show so fascinating.

There's not much here that makes it stand out as a game, either. While there are some intriguing bits built into each round's strategy, there's not much that will keep most players engrossed. Narcos isn't an offensive entry into the RTS genre, but it doesn't do anything to add to it or become a staple for hardcore fans of it either.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels What I liked

Kuju attempted a different take on the RTS here, which is about the only thing going for it. Instead of having a crew that you can move entirely in one turn, Rise of the Cartels only lets you move one party member at a time. This slows the game down to a halt (more on this later), but it does add one tricky element to the players' strategy. Since the movements are so minute throughout, it means that one small mistake can result in the death of one of your characters.

Most of the characters are disposable and have no personalities to endear them to the player.

Most of the characters are disposable and have no personalities to endear them to the player, but if you lose your party leader, the round ends. The tension sets in because you don't want that to happen and lose maybe 20 minutes of progress.

RTS games have been working for years on how to up the stakes of each round. XCOM is well-known both in and outside the genre partly because of permadeath, for example. A lot of games have followed suit. Rise of the Cartels utilizes this concept in a slightly different way. By only allowing you to move one character at a time per round, it emphasizes each choice you make. It then becomes easy to figure out where you went wrong so that you can start all over again.

The game also has a budget system that's worth noting. You're given a certain amount of money at the start of each round that you can use to pick up new teammates and heal the injured ones. You can also spend it to complete missions. Important story missions are free, but side missions can cost thousands to complete based on difficulty. Of course, if you complete one of these expensive missions, you get more money as a reward. It's easy to run out of money, especially if you want to spend it all on the most expensive teammates, so there is an incentive to take on high-reward missions. Also, if you spend too much money, your boss yells at you. There are no consequences, but she does yell, which is something I guess.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels What I didn't like

Gameplay in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

Source: Curve Digital (Image credit: Source: Curve Digital)

Now that the previous section is complete, I can get into the meat of the game, even if there isn't a lot to dig into. There are a couple of interesting ideas, but for the most part, Rise of the Cartels doesn't do anything with its concept — from its lack of a story and characters to its meandering pace and boring gameplay.

It all just feels like a waste of a licensed IP.

As I mentioned earlier, Narcos is not a story about war or action-packed spectacle. Despite the tension involved in the conflict between the U.S. government and the cartels, the show is more of a character study and historical drama. While it didn't do a lot of Columbia's (and later Mexico's) history and culture justice, it manages to craft a story for American audiences that at least attempts to portray both sides. It's full of morally ambiguous characters who are all fighting for a cause, which allows us to sympathize, at least a little, with some of modern history's most dangerous criminals.

Despite various cutscenes throughout Narcos: Rise of the Cartels that harken back to the series, along with some characters straight out of the show, there's little that ties the two together. The game is rooted in this idea of combat — makes sense considering this is an RTS — but that becomes all-encompassing. With sparse conversations between rounds to root it in some story beyond just hoping you can take down the cartel, it becomes all about the war. This is the opposite of what the show introduced. There's also the idea that this is an adaptation of the first season, which you can experience by just, you know, watching the first season on Netflix.

Each round has you as the DEA taking out members of the cartel, along with some banal sidequests like finding evidence or lighting stuff on fire. After you complete a round, you can unlock it from the Narcos' perspective, but there is little to differentiate them besides the characters you get to play with. Plus, after slogging through a long round, it's unlikely you'd want to.

Squad screen in Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

Source: Curve Digital (Image credit: Source: Curve Digital)

Since you can only move one team member at a time, rounds tend to take a long time. You can stretch it out even further by doing several tasks, although this was most likely not intentional. For example, if you engage in combat and don't kill the enemy, you might get stuck in a nearly endless loop as you both heal, attempt to shoot, reload, and then heal some more. The RTS element goes away here, leaving the player with little to do besides end the encounter. Even if you complete your mission, the round might continue, forcing you to go through the motions for little payoff.

Even though you do have extra tasks to complete besides killing each member of the enemy squad, there's little to differentiate each round. You put your squad together, hunt down your enemies, take them out, and hope for the best. The sidequests can break up the monotony a bit, but when the game starts to reuse maps early on, and there's little story reason to even think about the evidence in more than an abstract way, it feels meaningless. The only thing to move you through the game is your possible desire just to play the game more, to get to a new map or a new level, which isn't enough.

There's also nothing that separates the teammates you can recruit minus their classes and subsequent abilities. They're all expendable. All you have to do is have some money and pick up another squadmate at the end of the round, which you almost always do. Even Steve Murphy, one of the main characters from the show and the party leader you start off with, isn't distinct in any way.

Everything else about the game feels rushed or cheap. Characters may have one voice line that gets recycled over and over again. Even some of the voice acting feels inconsistent; your boss's voice lines sound like they were recorded through a phone. Character animations are smooth and uncomfortable looking. All the recycled material from the show feels like padding, especially since none of it factors into the story in Rise of the Cartels.

Bottom line

The last season of Narcos came out in 2018, which wasn't that long ago, but the first season, which this game is based on, came out 2015. That's a lifetime in our fast-paced media landscape, so there remains the largest question: Who is this game for? It's not for Narcos fans since they could just watch it on Netflix. It's not for RTS fans since it barely does anything with the core gameplay, and squanders any potential.

Rise of the Cartels completely misunderstands the source material, turning the political intrigue into basic combat and having absolutely no distinguishable characters. Beyond that, the gameplay itself is lousy. It's slow, monotonous, repetitive, and while there's a couple of ideas here that might be better utilized in other hands, they're not enough to make it appealing to hardcore RTS game fans.

It all just feels like a waste of a licensed IP. Narcos isn't the most extravagant or well-known property, but it's good at what it does. An RTS wasn't the correct fit for the story in the first place, but what Kuju does with it doesn't even make it worth the blip on your radar. Unless you're craving a turn-based strategy game and you can get this on deep discount, there's nothing to recommend.



Carli Velocci
Gaming Lead, Copy Chief

Carli is the Gaming Editor and Copy Chief across Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore. Her last name also will remind you of a dinosaur. Follow her on Twitter or email her at