REVIEW: Hands-On With Cartel Tycoon

Cartel Tycoon will transform into a commodity in the RTS world. Rough cut as it is, you can bet on the tenacity.
j.whough

Cartel Tycoon lives in a world where drug business ‘simulators’ have eked out in drips and drabs. Sadly, they are often garbage ware for ten a penny, so the production value only adds to their charm. Unless browser-based script ’em ups like The Mafia Network or Drug Wars count, few games capture the grandiose scale of building an empire on intimidation with your bare hands. While drugs are a fundamental building block of the game, the South American crimewave syndicate has rarely had such a spotlight. So consider this a breakthrough video game role for today’s still alive and prominent movement.

What is it?

Much love has been poured into Cartel Tycoon, and it shows in abundance. Inspired by the events of the late ’80s, you take control of the beginnings of your cartel through a narrative or pure sandbox. It’s a beautiful game to look at often—the hand-painted watercolour cutscenes, the in-game map palette, and menus that pop out with vibrancy. The presentation does dazzle for a game with such a gritty and cutthroat subject matter.

Even the story, often taking a backseat in RTS and management sims to gameplay, feels fleshed out and genuinely gripping. It has the kind of narrative you can insatiably clamour for, even if the current objectives require hours of grinding. Scrolling through dialogue is a little clunky, but its content gives characters complexity, which feels overlooked in this genre too often. 

What’s Is It Like?

In-game, Cartel Tycoon, assembles a typical core 4X playstyle but also features procedurally generated objectives and permadeath and roguelike mechanics should your head honcho fall. Resources run on the principles of a dual economy: ‘dirty’ money and legal money. Starting with farms, you produce and store your available inventory and distribute it to gain dirty money. A great touch is storage facilities created inside the radius of those farms automatically link them as a network together. You distribute those products via smuggling ports such as airports and docks. Legal money is obtained when you launder dirty money from specific buildings. All buildings run upkeep of either dirty or legal money, but which of them, you can choose 90% of the time.

The system can be brutal to get to grips with, so playing story mode is recommended if you’re planning on investing time here. The initial tutorial becomes invaluable once you start clearing those first objectives. 

Once in a position to begin expansion, recruiting lieutenants and taking over territories is less worry. Just point, weigh up the numbers and click. Managing your hierarchy is simple, but the more you recruit, the more morale you have to monitor. You can also get bonus quests and objectives from them from time to time. Fail to promote or pay your comrades, and you risk them going rogue and exacting vengeance. Not only that but there are only so many spots on each tier of your tree, so promote wisely. That risk/reward mechanic in Cartel Tycoon keeps the management aspect exciting or nerve-wracking, depending on how you look at it. It’s the kind of RTS with unique characteristics and fresh ideas aplenty that it’s worthy of investment.

What’s Wrong With It?

As polished as the game is, however, there appears to be a staggering balance issue first and foremost. We are talking about a game only in early access, but getting a functioning production line weighs too heavily on legal money from the get-go. Dirty money is easy to accumulate, but the process of lieutenants having to transport dirty money as upkeep to each building is a chore.

As you expand, the danger of being spread too thinly to protect territory, and keep buildings operating, becomes frustrating. Lieutenants have to be stationed at smuggling points, and in cities, rival gangs will rapidly be dispatched to reclaim them. Their strength outweighs a vast majority of your beginning powers, so combining lieutenants to fend them off is necessary if you plan to hold them. Assuming this will become a later feature to hire and include footsoldiers or equivalent, having your lieutenants contest rival gangs right now seems unfair. The portrayal of building something from nothing is a legitimate challenge in reality. The reflection and recreation here, however, are perhaps too unforgiving.

Once you pass one plot point, the tutorials and tips evaporate. Re-reading the tip manual for certain gameplay aspects is a godsend, but you can’t help but feel abandoned. You gain access to new drugs to create and sell, but alluding to it in the narrative isn’t clear signposting. This is still, unfortunately, very early in the game. The permadeath mechanic is a defining feature of Cartel Tycoon, but a scenario where a specific character died in conflict resulted in the game force reloading a save. The reason becomes apparent later, but it was a definite moment of confusion. This is more of a minor nitpick, to be honest.

Should I Play It?

To reiterate what was said earlier, this is a game that only just launched in early access, and developers Moon Moose have every intention of reacting to and addressing feedback. Cartel Tycoon has a massive heap of potential. It is a fascinating time-sink when the game works for you and functions synergise. Micromanaging personnel and their purposes can get as addictive as the opiates they peddle. Sadly, the near-vertical difficulty spike cannot be ignored, despite understanding the emphasis on survival and rebuilding. An against-all-odds scenario here works if all the tools to fight those odds are provided. Right now, the toolbox is missing more than a few. People interested in Cartel Tycoon or new to RTS-style games could find themselves a harsh barrier to entry.

Cartel Tycoon will transform into a commodity in the RTS world. Rough cut as it is, you can bet on the tenacity.

Cartel Tycoon is out now on Early Access, on Steam, GOG.com, and Epic Games Store.

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