Great care is put into representing the historical riots portrayed in RIOT – Civil Unrest. It’s a shame the gameplay often lets down the great direction with plenty of irritating bugs and balance issues.
I was instantly drawn to the art style of RIOT – Civil Unrest; a pixel art style you’d usually expect to see from a more colourful game. The grim pixel art juxtaposed with real life riots helps ground the game in the events depicted – it creates simple, grimly beautiful visuals. The UI design leaves a lot to be desired, however; ugly menus are hard to read and overly cumbersome to navigate. Players can build their own custom levels too in a confusing UI, but those willing to put in the time will be rewarded with an in-depth creation tool.
To depict these real life riots, developers Leonard Menchiari and IV Productions opt for a real time strategy simulation. You can play all scenarios as either police or rioters. Each side is split into separate groups, with the player able to control each group’s movements, and abilities/items. Creator Leonard Menchiari took an experience he had at the NoTAV protests in Italy – one of the campaigns in the game – and created RIOT – Civil Unrest to express the tensions and feelings created through riots. His first-hand experience really adds to the honest, delicate, and respectable representation of all the riots depicted in the game.
In its story mode, RIOT – Civil Unrest contains four campaigns with four levels each: Indignados, Arab Spring, Keratea and NoTAV. Set in Spain, Egypt, Greece and Italy respectively, each has its own unique look and feel, and one of the most striking parts of RIOT – Civil Unrest is the cutscenes that play before each level. Without dialogue and an art style that doesn’t bode well for nuance, the team has managed to use simple and often emotive imagery to convey the story and the emotions of those involved, which is a great feat. Something as simple as a police officer taking off his helmet to wipe his brow at dusk tells the player everything they need to know. RIOT’s soundtrack also lends to the feeling of the campaigns; all four have their own tracks to help set the tone and place. The sound design within levels adds atmosphere to the riots, intermixing the marching of police, the chants of the rioters, the explosions of smoke grenades and screams to any threat of violence from police.
When playing as police, the groups are split among ballistic, tactical, and assault units. Ballistic uses weaponry to disperse crowds including smoke grenades, tear gas and eventually live ammunition. Assault uses batons and can charge at rioters to frighten them or injure them. The tactical unit is the most useful when it comes to holding areas: they use riot shields and go toe-to-toe with rioters, pushing them back when head on.
Unfortunately on the rioters’ side, there’s not much in the way of units. Instead, you pick a special rioter at the start of each level that will be in amongst your angry horde to add abilities. You can choose to throw molotovs, firecrackers, or any number of useful skills that you unlock throughout global and story mode. The skills tend to be less involved but contextually accurate: perhaps you can help everyone band together better raising morale while singing, or use social media to bring in some extra help.
Once you get past those cutscenes, you’re put straight into the conflict as whichever side you chose to play. This was initially quite jarring – RIOT‘s tutorial is hidden among the main menu in custom mode. The tutorial you do get is short without lending too much to the intricacies in gameplay, but in essence all you need to know is how to move your groups, switch from defensive to offensive, and use abilities.
The outcome of each level depends on two factors: military and politics. Interestingly, even if you go in too passive and lose the objective, you could still win the level. If you’re passive but the opposite faction are extremely violent, they may win the objective and gain military points – but the deduction of political points may still mean a loss. Playing as the police, I had one level where the rioters were extremely violent, and I let them kill every police officer I had to see if I would still win. The answer was yes; they killed all of my officers, but lost so many political points I won overall. Oddly enough, this is a strategy that worked for me on both sides, but there’s no doubt that police are easier to play as than rioters. For a number of levels, including the hardest ‘lawless’ mode, I set up every unit to use a line formation and all push forward together using the radio item on every unit. It turned out that unless they were violent, it was impossible for the rioters to stop me.
However, often a win or a loss was undermined by the number of bugs this game suffers from. The collision system in RIOT – Civil Unrest has to be spot on for gameplay to run smoothly. But often, a whole unit or group of rioters can easily get stuck somewhere; I’ve had groups stuck in a corner for a full round, and moving units sometimes get stuck on terrain around the map. More balancing and fixes are needed, mostly to the AI. A lot of the gameplay involves spamming right-click to get a group back or actually moving. And sometimes, abilities just won’t work; on numerous occasions, I’d set the assault unit to throw a grenade, only for it to never materialise. It’s those bugs in the gameplay that far too often to let down the whole experience.
The lowest difficulty, ‘too easy’, is exactly that, but it’s handy for practicing your own strategies that you can then use in harder difficulties. Playing in ‘lawless’, the opposing faction is more aggressive and the AI more reactive, sure, but most of the time I was still completing levels effectively and quickly by using the same perfected strategies that also work in ‘too easy’ mode.
The direction in art and story is the high point in RIOT – Civil Unrest for sure. It helps depict these events, and teach the player about them – most of them I’d never heard of, but now I feel like I’ve learnt a bit about each. It’s grim and effective in that regard, but its gameplay really lets it down. RIOT – Civil Unrest‘s captivating art style and audio design is worth paying a visit to, and the game has some great ideas, but poor UI design, buggy AI and gameplay glitches really dampen the experience.
Still, my admiration for the direction in creating tone and emotion with very simplistic pixel art leaves me interested in what Leonard Menchiari does in the future.