Cartel Tycoon Early Access preview

by Lars
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Cartel Tycoon takes players on a simulated tour of the drug trade, from their first simple opium farm setup to a city-spanning criminal organisation smuggling vast quantities of narcotics all around the world. It’s now available in Steam’s Early Access program, meaning you can get the head start on your very own drug empire right now – but is it worth it?

Cartel Tycoon is very slick in its presentation. The stories are told through still-frame animatics, and gameplay is underscored by appropriately funky Latino rhythms. You’ll start small, establishing a few opium farms, linking them to a warehouse, before ferrying them to an aerodrome to start moving small quantities out for sale. This generates dirty money, which can be used for expanding your production and paying lieutenants to keep them happy, but you’ll need to branch out into other lines of business to launder it, acquiring fronts like taxi firms in big cities.

The aerodrome is great for moving small quantities of product with no risk, but Cartel Tycoon demands you dream bigger, and that means producing cannabis, cocaine and meth, smuggling it out in larger, more profitable quantities, hidden in legitimate produce packages. Balancing the clean and dirty aspects of your business is delicate, and the consequences for overstepping your means can often be harsh for new players. Currently, the tutorial does a reasonable job of walking you through the absolute basics, but Cartel Tycoon is quite a complex game, and it’s easy to get lost within its many intertwined systems.

Why Early Access?

“Cartel Tycoon is a unique production management game with permadeath survival and a major emphasis on character management. Because we want players to have a great experience, community involvement is super important, every step of the way! Releasing the game in Early Access is the perfect way for us to steadily grow our playerbase, while at the same time communicating that the game is still changing and improving.”

When a character dies, they’re gone forever, and if you don’t have a lieutenant queued up to replace your capo, it’s game over. As the game expands, becoming more and more complicated, with multiple building threats to keep in mind, you can be dealt crippling blows to your business fairly early on. This is doubly frustrating when it feels as though Cartel Tycoon hasn’t really told you why, or explained what you could have done to avoid it. There is an in-game encyclopedia resource, but that’s not the most organic way to learn a game’s systems.

Regardless, what’s already present in Cartel Tycoon is very promising. It’s quite heavy on the micro-management side, which would be good for some and awful for others, and it feels like you’re expected to have a hand in every little detail of your business. Given how complex the game can become, this was probably a necessity to making it work in a way that would be enjoyable long-term, but I played this straight after marathoning lots of Evil Genius 2, which automates a lot of the grunt work so you can spend more time practicing your evil laugh. Admittedly, Cartel Tycoon is a much more serious affair, and will definitely be more attractive to hardcore sim fans.

Cartel Tycoon Early Access – is it worth it?

I’d say that Cartel Tycoon doesn’t really feel like an Early Access title at all – this seems like more or less the finished product, just with a lot of balance tweaking to make the difficulty curve less harsh. It goes from holding your hand to constantly punishing you for your terrible crimes in a heartbeat, and while that does become less of a problem the more you play, it’s going to be a bit offputting for players who just want to build their criminal empire in relative peace.

If Cartel Tycoon is your sort of game, there’s absolutely no reason not to buy it right now. There’s already plenty of entertainment for the price, and it’s only going to expand until the projected release in Q3 of 2021.

Cartel Tycoon is available on Steam in Early Access now. Check out more of our game reviews and previews here.

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