RIOT: Civil Unrest is an interesting prospect – a serious simulation that aims to recreate some of the most recent and famous public demonstrations and stand offs, but without taking a particular side. Driven by the experiences of Leonard Menchiari when he took part in the NO-TAV protests in Italy during 2011, he wanted to explore what it means to be an officer sent in to move camps on, or be a protester standing their ground. Would it be possible to understand what triggers the flashpoints of aggression and how each of the sides acts and counteracts to the face off?
Based on four core campaigns – the aforementioned NO-TAV in Northern Italy, the Arab Spring, Caracas in Venezuela and Oakland in California – you choose whether to control the protesters or the police and take charge of the actions in real time after being given an overview of what’s happening. Within each campaign there are several scenarios with different objectives depending on who’s being guided. Whether it’s keeping a NO-TAV camp intact or clearing Tahrir Square, the aim is to complete it within the time limit, with minimal loss of life, and in some cases keeping public and press opinion on side. This means that being heavy handed might win the current fight, but you can end up losing the campaign in the papers.
Each side in RIOT: Civil Unrest is controlled by directing units with the analogue sticks and then applying effects with the face buttons. There are a number of units that are selected via the right stick and then moved into position with the left, and the groups move together or separate depending on what resistance they encounter. Functionally, whether you’re the protesters or the cops, the abilities on hand are very similar: stand your ground, throw projectiles, rally your comrades or shoot (if firearms are an option). The AI behaviour built into the crowds means that the ebb and flow of the confrontation is realistic, and each individual has the capability of acting by itself or part of the mob.
Figuring out what tactics to use is really the core part of RIOT: Civil Unrest. With numerous types of units and “buffs” available there’s a reasonable amount of options of what to employ like using smoke grenades to clear spaces, or creating barricades and blockers, and there’s a herding element as well if you want to try and peacefully move the crowds on. Of course, it’s not always possible to remain calm as the other side comes under increasing agitation and starts provoking or making things violent. It’s the decisions in those moments that can make or break the scenario and determine whether the operation has been a success. Tooling up is a viable tactic, though once the first shot is fired it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a PR nightmare and a failure.
There’s a very distinct look to the game with the pixel art style that works reasonably well at distance for making it difficult to see what’s going on. I’m assuming this is intentional as in the heat of the moment it would be hard to tell one side from another as everyone merges together. With zoom options it’s possible to hone in on specific activities if it’s needed, yet the chaos and freeform movement of the groups means precise control is out of the question. In some cases this means success might be more through luck than judgement, especially when there’s nothing to explain what anything does. A tutorial screen wouldn’t have gone amiss.
With the way units can become overwhelmed and withdraw by themselves, and the tricky visibility, it’s actually quite a tough game to keep your eyes on and know what’s happening. It might be a consequence of the controller layout, but it’s also a bit fiddly to work so combining the two lends itself to being a bit awkward and unresponsive at times, or even overly responsive when it comes to throwing things so that targets are missed by some margin. Of course, this adds to the feeling of being out of control of the situation as it escalates and can force you into heading down tactic routes that there’s no turning back from.
The way RIOT: Civil Unrest conducts itself is very nicely done in that it manages to remain balanced all the way through. There’s no taking of sides or suggestion of who was right or wrong during the confrontations. It even suggests doing the background research to better understand what these events were and how they shaped things within the countries they happened in. It’s a noble effort and one that’s good to see being based on actual experience. In terms of it being a game though… I’m not too sure on that, the subject matter feels too serious to be something you might casually enjoy. It’s worth experiencing the mechanics at work, but it won’t really be for everyone.
A PS4 review copy of RIOT: Civil Unrest was provided by Merge Games PR team and it’s available now on PC, Xbox One, PC and Switch for around £16.