Review: Narcos: Rise of the Cartels – PS4

Glorifying drug cartels, murder and corruption isn’t the top of most people’s to-do lists. However, check out your streaming history (not that one) and chances are your library is full of titles like Making a Murderer, Breaking Bad, Spongebob Squarepants and Narcos. If your view of Netflix and chill is to hang our with Pablo Escobar, you’re in luck: Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is out on the PS4.

That’s a bit of a sweeping statement for an opener, but it’s surprising how many ‘sensible’ people are fascinated by certain folk on the other side of the law. Perhaps it’s the mystery or the thrill of knowingly doing something terrible, the power potential or that it’s a path you will never experience in your life. Least, that’s not the 5-year game plan anyway. But what if you could have a stab at being a villain without any consequences, would you? We’ve all killed innocents in games like Skyrim, so why not take up the next possible vocation: cartel leader.

This could go down several routes. We’ve seen organised crime in games like the Mafia series, Scarface and the Grand Theft Auto franchise, but they’re all third-person action games. Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is a turn-based strategy game. If I’m going to make an irrelevant anecdote about drugs, I’ll take that opportunity now. Strategy games used to be my thing but having a family, work commitments and other boring grown-up stuff, it got in the way, so I have had a self-imposed ban on this sort of thing for some time. As a console game, is it a quick play venture or is it going to be like its PC counterparts and have me coming out of cold turkey and reaching for World of Warcraft? The answer is yes and no. It’s easily accessible, I’ve been hooked on Narcos: Rise of the Cartels for a while, but I won’t be reaching for my mouse and keyboard anytime soon.

Third-person attack mode

If you’re a fan of the acclaimed Netflix series, you won’t be disappointed that they use footage from the series and the original soundtrack – which was really good. There’s the option to play either the DEA or the Narcos (pending you finish the first DEA story mission to unlock). They both have their benefits, but both sides are corrupt in some way or another. Even better – you get to play the actual characters from the series too – no third parties you couldn’t care less about. Playing the DEA for the first time, I was keen to get Murphy ‘reassigned’ as I never liked him, but he’s kind of pivotal in the outcome of the story. Bugger. 

I mentioned that I was (and still am) a strategy fan, but apart from the odd JRPG adventure, I’m not too keen on turn-based strategy games. I think I downloaded XCOM from PlayStation Plus and still haven’t played it. The reason I bring this up is there will be a lot of comparisons to XCOM, but I can’t directly confirm them, not being overly familiar with it. What I can say though is this is an enjoyable game. So much so, in that it made me put down Death Stranding for long enough.

You start off with one character then quickly gain additional units, cycling between the members with L1 and R1. As a strategy game, you want to think about where to place your units and not leave them in the open. As this is urban-based, enemies appear from all angles, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed – as you would expect, given the circumstances. Each character has a range on where they can move so you can’t go storming into the danger zone in your first attempt – you need to build up to it. More importantly, you can’t do anything when it isn’t your turn (obviously), so if you place your team in a compromised position, it’s not exactly fun to watch them get gunned down when you can do nothing about it.

Search Bloc scouting the area

While the game was installing, I had a quick refresher of the announcement trailer and saw a few comments on the interwebs that this was a mobile game. First of all, as a non-mobile gamer, I have to say there are a decent amount of games out there worth playing, but in fear of insulting mobile developers, this is much bigger than that. The streets of Bodega, Columbia are brilliant – I really like the attention to the visuals. It doesn’t feel like a typical tie-in as all the maps are unique to the game. The narration and voice acting are top-notch too. I wasn’t sure some of the original cast were present – Pena is definitely a different actor. Also, note that I looked up the trailer while installing – this was 20GB. Try playing that on your Samsung.

So it’s a turn-based strategy which also means, as it’s mostly an urban assault, a cover-based approach. Each object you hide behind has a level of protection. Hide behind a building, and you’ll likely have full protection. Slide up next to a fence, and you’ll be a pin cushion in no time. With the attacks, it’s the opposite of the defence as you need to be in a position where you can clearly see and shoot the opposition. Actions can be selected with the d-pad. In this example, choose the target icon to decide who to kill and press the X button. Your character will fire and pending that they pull off a critical hit, you can finish them off with a kill shot (lining up with the left stick then pressing fire). Be aware that you need to reload still, and these use up action points. Movement, attacks, reloading… they are all affected so ensure you are somewhere safe before reloading. This isn’t Call of Duty.

Another standard option is counteract. While it is a turn-based environment, you can intercept enemies changing position and manually shoot them using the left stick while locking on to them. This can turn things around and give you the advantage, but it comes at a price as you need to accumulate the points for it to work. Points range from moving around without conflict to enemy kills. When I first found out how to use it, I spammed it as it was a game-changer, but soon came unstuck – especially when the enemy would run up to me point blank and shoot executioner style.

An elevated position gives an advantage

Between the battlegrounds is the war room – a location that you can see intel on your enemies – be it law enforcement or the drug cartel hierarchy, a map with your current progress and influence of the surrounding areas. The map features the mission selection where you earn money for each campaign. Most missions can be played for free, but you need to pay as you progress further with the dough you earn. Once you’re ready to start a campaign, you can choose your squad. We’ve touched on combat, but what happens if you lose a character is killed? They’re dead. Finito. It’s like a reimagining of Cannon Fodder: once a squad member is killed, a new one replaces them. When in the war room area, just head over to the roster option and pick your new member – each with their own defined stats and perks. For those that are left, they rank up, so the aim is to keep your best players alive. If they get injured, however, their injury carries over to the next level, but you can spend money on them to instantly heal them. 

Before knowing anything about the game, I thought it could have the potential to be a point and click, detective-like game. It might have worked, but despite mild reservations that turn-based games like this are a little old hat, I was pleasantly surprised how good Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is. I’m a little invested in the story, having seen the related series (this is Columbia based, not Mexico) and knowing a bit of the history. Ignoring this, if you were coming into the Narcos anew, it’s still really good, and you don’t need to have an interest in the themes. Well, you have to be accustomed to either taking out the DEA or the cartel. Overall though, I was pretty impressed with Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, and it’s a thumbs up from me.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels PS4 Review
  • Overall - Fantastic - 8/10


A turn-based strategy game that will keep you occupied for some time as you can’t rush it. There are a good variety of characters each with their own perks and overall, the Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is an excellent tie-in to accompany the TV series.


  • A good deal of perks/abilities for characters
  • Excellent presentation throughout
  • Play as the DEA or cartel
  • Level up characters to suit your style of play


  • Some of the voice talent isn’t so good
  • Camera angles can be a little tricky
  • No difficulty options

Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy. 

Reviewed using PS4 Slim. 

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