It takes just a spark to ignite a war. The same can also be said for turning a peaceful protest into a full-blown riot. A projectile lobbed too hard, a push becoming a shove, or some looney turning up to a quiet demonstration with a backpack full of fireworks. The police take aim with rubber bullets and in a matter of seconds there’s hysteria on the streets. Who’s to blame? Well, this is seemingly something the press decides – this rioting simulator definitely makes a few bold statements.
It taps into the messy, unpredictable, nature of organised riots, making you guess as to whether the police are going to retaliate, or to contemplate resorting to violence yourself.
It’s an intriguing concept, and unlike similar games released over the years (remember State of Emergency on PS2?) the developer isn’t out to generate controversy. Very few riots entail brutality, and using harmless tactics is encouraged. You can, however, use violence to swing things in your favour. This is when things become messy and chaotic, and all feeling of being in control is lost. Riots can become wildly unpredictable in these instances, too. The police use live ammo so rarely that the first time they opened fire it left us rather shocked. Realism is favoured here, certainly.
The four short campaigns – lasting 20-30 minutes each, complete with pixel-art cut-scenes – are set in such locations as Egypt, Greece, Italy, and Spain. It’s possible to play through each campaign as either the rioters or the police, both of which have their own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities.
Rioters always outnumber the police, often three times over. Most missions – which entail protecting or destroying structures, pushing the police back (off the screen), or simply holding your ground for five minutes – put four or five groups of rioters under your control.
Now seems a good time to mention that there’s no tutorial, which made for a poor first impression. It also doesn’t help that the HUD is extremely crude, to the point that some of the item icons – particularly for the police – are hard to distinguish. This can result in using the wrong ability at the wrong time. It seems the developers really struggled with the HUD, as it’s prone to glitching too.
Each group can be assigned four abilities or items, some of which should only be used if you’re willing to let things turn ugly. The lead developer has seen riots unfold with his own eyes, and this first-hand experience has led to a skill list as long as it is creative. Laser pens, homemade smoke bombs, backpacks full of rocks, fireworks, and the power of social media are all at your disposal, along with more passive approaches such as simply sitting on the ground and chanting.
Police squads are fewer in number but come clutching batons, riot shields, and teargas. Some stages also feature riot vans, although their movement is restricted to simply moving forward and backwards.
While it’s possible to pick which items the police carry by managing a budget, which is supposedly meant to give the game a more tactical slant, this feature sadly feels redundant. We had no trouble breezing through the campaign using default set-ups, passing most missions on the first attempt.
In many ways, Riot: Civil Unrest is too much like a real-life riot for its own good. There’s a painful amount of shouting and screaming, it isn’t always entirely clear what’s going on as certain groups seemingly refuse to take orders, and it’s often hard to tell if objectives are being accomplished. Some riots are over so swiftly – we recall at least three over in less than 30 seconds – that they felt wholly pointless, and we also felt like we had no control over a few later missions due to the police turning aggressive during the final moments.
There are moments of brilliance here – those elusive sparks, if you will – but for the most part, it’s fairly humdrum. Holding the analogue stick in one direction while flicking through squads is often enough to win the tug-of-war style battles, while the ‘hold your position’ missions can be accomplished by simply positioning your men on the objective and regrouping after every gas attack, occasionally stopping to rally the troops. Most of the difficulty spikes are down to awkwardly fussy AI; those loose cannons that refuse to take orders, or somehow get lost amongst the crowd.
We didn’t feel compelled to stick with the longer-lasting ‘global mode’ for more than an hour – the 3-hour story mode was enough to highlight numerous shortcomings. Slack design choices sadly extinguish all potential the original concept had.