RIOT – Civil Unrest is a handsome but pointless RTS


The molotov cocktails and pixel fires of Riot – Civil Unrest have lit up on early access. It’s an RTS of street tactics where you control either rioters or the police, seeking to control the plazas and highways of Egypt, Spain and other nations grazed by disorder in the past decade. It focuses on real world popular uprisings and protest movements like the Arab Spring, the Indignados, and the environmental protesters of Italy and Greece. Because of this, you might expect it to be a political powderkeg. But Riot not only manages to say nothing noteworthy about any of these conflicts, it also shows little competence as a game.

It’s an RTS of limited means. The story mode gives you a few levels in each country and asks you to control baton-wielding riot cops or a crowd of protesters. The police are split into specialist units. An assault class can charge at the protesters, laying into them with truncheons or turning back early, happy to have scattered the crowd with a forceful advance. A shielded class push slowly forward, displacing civilians by marching in a disciplined line and shouting. Finally, a ballistics unit can fire gas canisters, plastic bullets or (in some cases) live ammo into the crowd.


By comparison, the grouped protester units are straightforward. They have greater numbers but are limited to either violent or non-violent, an icon above their heads depicting either an open palm or a closed fist. This limits what each group of protestors can do. Only violent units can throw petrol bombs or rocks, for example. One of the most useful tactics for protesters is to sit on the ground and raise their hands in a ‘hold position’ stance. So long as morale is okay (a small, barely noticeable meter next to the groups icon) the unit won’t flee. This is important, since the objective on the single-screen map is usually about locking down an area, preventing the cops from advancing, or slowly pushing down a street yourself, always against a short timer.


It sounds like excellent fuel for a big street-fire of civil disobedience and martial response. The politically-charged settings suggest it might have something to say about power of protest, responsibilities of government, the lure of street violence or a cocktail of these grey topics. Failing that, the unusual theme might at least galvanise the RTS elements, creating some fresh ideas. Sadly, the opportunity is missed, leaving only a damp, unlit firecracker of a game, both annoying to play and strangely voiceless.

First, let’s look at the gamey bits. The bustling pixel art battlegrounds are as handsome as they have always seemed in tweets and trailers. Crowds surge, flames whip around, the ground becomes littered with flags and protest signs. But none of it can mask the poorly-designed tactical street fighting. All fights come down to a shoving match of furious clicking, and units rarely follow your instructions with any accuracy or reliability. Even selecting units is a pain and the units’ abilities must be activated individually, meaning that to get multiple units to do the same thing in near-unison you have to quickly swap between them using the tab button (or, heaven help you, trying to locate and click on the right unit in the crowd) then activating their power from a button at the top of the screen. For example, if you want to send a volley of gas canisters, you need to cycle through each ballistics unit to do so. If you want to send back a volley of rocks, it’s the same process. There’s no drag-and-select-all, and no way to squash the units together. It’s a small and fiddly issue that comes up over and over again, souring the whole fight.


You only fight on a single left-to-right plane, so the struggle always comes down to a back-and-forth. Police move in a rigid square formation, unable to acknowledge that they even have a flank, never mind guard it (or exploit the flank of their opponents). Meanwhile, protesters move in nebulous, barely-controllable blobs. This might be an intelligent observation on the hard-to-control nature of protest, but it doesn’t make for a fun strategy game – a genre which pretty much demands total control over your own units.

And because there are so many people on screen, sometimes hundreds of small humans, it quickly degenerates into a screen of limbs and twitching animations, as hard to read as it is to control. It’s difficult to see how your social media broadcast for reinforcements, or your firework, or your handful of arrests has affected the “battlefield” when your screen is messier than a fried egg sandwich.


It’s an unpleasant game to play, not because of the action – the beatings, deaths, arrests or shootings – but because how little of the action is readable. Messages pop up in the corner, letting you know what’s going on – “Someone has been hurt! x 7”. But where!? Even in the most overwhelming RTS you can see and hear the deaths of your little killers, you can get a sense for how many are coming this way, or flowing that way, how many are popping like microwaved beans during an assault. Here, you can make sense of very little. I tried clicking on the pop-up messages to see if they’d show me exactly where in the crowd people were being hurt. But no luck.

This is doubly frustrating when you try to direct the battle. One of the protesters’ items is a camera used to snap photos of any violent actions by police officers, which “influences the political result” (basically a score at the end of a level). But it’s impossible to tell where any of this violence is taking place. In more than the intended way, this is a melee.

A critic might be tempted to look at all these complaints and think: well this is what riots and protests are like – scenes of confusion and chaos. But why then grant the player an omniscient view and control over anything at all? If bedlam is what this game is trying to convey, then it succeeds. But it may have worked better as a great-looking, non-interactive animation, instead of a semi-functional, semi-random jostling pit.


It doesn’t help that it refuses to teach you how any of it works, instead dropping all information in a wiki style infodump and asking you to read vague entries about items you’ve not yet seen applied in-game. The same goes for the police’s weapons loadout screen, in which you’re asked to customise which of the seven truncheons you should use. Let’s see, do I want to batter people with the “Crude Long Baton” or the “Heavy Long Baton” or maybe the “HR Tonfa” or perhaps, today, the “Classic Baton”? This is the typical sin of RPG character creation screens, dumping a load of flowery skill names and cloudy nouns at you, expecting you to know what it all means before you have even seen anything beyond the game’s title screen. At least in RPGs you are often given a rudimentary explanation – a hover-tip or solitary line of text. Here, they are simply names. You may as well call these truncheons “pleb-beating stick” one through seven.


Now let’s look at the game’s theme. It explicitly says, in a big message at start-up, that it wants to be balanced, showing both sides of a protest. I’d argue that it succeeds at the “both sides” part but fails at the “showing”. There’s no inspection of humanity here – no rioters are ever cross-examined for their motives, no baton-wielding police are unmasked. Beyond a dispassionate description of historical events, there’s no humanising element to the hundreds of little pixelised men and women cluttering your screen, no nuance, and therefore no reason to believe the rioters are anything other than troublemakers, or the police anything other than state-sponsored killers. If it is balanced, it is only balanced insofar as everyone is a faceless unit within a mass of writhing limbs.


Politically speaking, the only message here seems to be “riots happen”. You can approach them peacefully from either angle. Or you can approach them with force from either angle. The game might be saying: “It’s up to whoever is in charge to decide how things turn out” but that doesn’t mesh with the game’s uncontrollable nature, nor does it match reality, where protests often devolve into chaos not only due to some catalysing event – a death or a privation – but also because of a mix of complicated reasons that precede the riot itself. In Civil Unrest, riots are examined but the reasons why riots happen are not, nor are the consequences.

If it does make any kind of political or moral observation, it is to conflate protest with violent rebellion, using the words “protesters”, “rioters” and “rebels” interchangeably, despite these being different things. But even this feels more like an oversight of language than an intended or unintended message. Ultimately, this is a game into which people will read whatever they want to read. Some will accuse it of reinforcing an idea that the state must seek order, even if it means violence. Others will say it portrays ordinary policemen as thugs, or well-meaning protesters as a seething mob. But I can only accuse Riot of being a poor RTS game with nothing insightful to say at all. And I’m sorry that the detailed artwork – which really must be praised – has an imagination and flair that the game, as a whole, doesn’t share.

RIOT – Civil Unrest is on Steam early access for £9.99 but if it’s pixel art, politics and decent RTS-ing you’re after, you could try Tooth and Tail


  1. thenevernow says:

    Less political, arguably more fun: Hooligans = Storm over Europe.

    link to

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    rheimbro says:

    I’m holding out until the Pepsi DLC comes out.

  3. Imperialist says:

    So…in order for the game to have purpose…to exist with meaning, it has to TAKE a political stance? Surely there is some merit in remaining unbiased? In this day and age where everyone’s political affiliations are shouted from media screens, rooftops, or chatrooms…its somewhat refreshing to see something (especially a game, which should be the least political platform there is) take zero stance on a hot subject. It merely allows you to make up your own mind…which is how more things should be.

    Also, i would like to point out is that the nature of the words “protesters”, “rioters” and “rebels” can change in a hot second. We have seen plenty of “Protesters” turn to “Rioters”, just look to certain events this year alone and see proof as such. Rebels is a bit more extreme, but what starts out as protest theoretically could snowball into riots…then rebellions. Its what happens.

    • grrrz says:

      yes, it certainly does, riots exist only within a political context, representing them without this context is just a vile entertainment.

      • Eightball says:

        “Vile entertainment” is an apt description for at least half of riots. Unless there’s a political context for smashing windows to steal iPhones.

        • automatic says:

          The political context for that is probably a failing capitalist economy.

        • grrrz says:

          yeah, because that’s actually a thing, sure. a protest and a riot are two very different things for starters (in both case the police will beat the shit out of you). and what you’re refering to is called looting, something that would happen for example when there’s a big storm destroying everything and the state fails to provide basic help (and people will loot food in this case, not iphones). During an actual riot there will be violence certainly but nobody is risking their life or jailtime “to steal an iphone”; I don’t even wanna know the logic at work there.

          • Eightball says:

            London 2011.

          • automatic says:

            London 2011 was the exact context of a failing capitalist economy. The protest began mostly by residents of a neighborhood where they couldn’t afford anything because of luxuous stores occupying the space. Just because people aren’t holding signs stating their political stances it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Political ignorance is not political neutrality.

          • grrrz says:

            So, I looked it up and the 2011 riot in London started because a guy was shot by the police during a drug-related arrest, not because they had just released the new iphone and people couldn’t afford it. (I’m not saying opportunists won’t take advantage of the chaos to steal shit, just that the cause is without any doubt political)

          • automatic says:

            In Brazil whenever a poor person is killed and there’s no witnesses to it police says it’s drug related. I also wonder why would London citizens massively loot stores if everything is alright with the economy and it’s much easier to just buy the stuff they want. To keep those colorful pieces of paper with numbers on their pockets so they can admire the queen picture?

      • Fnord73 says:

        Riots only appear within a political context?

        Sir, you have never been to a home game at Milwall.

      • Imperialist says:

        Except thats what video games are. Sorry kids, its not art, nor is it a documentary. Vile entertainment is what we play for fun. It doesnt need to vilify the police, or vindicate the protesters/rioters. It just needs to be a solid game. Whether this one is that, remains to be seen. But most of us sit down to wreck virtual things at the end of the day, and dont need to be preached at.

        Then again, some people want to wreck things in real life, and their mob antics may be shown here.

        • automatic says:

          If people who wants to wreck things in real life were in a number big enough as to cause social comotion humanity wouldn’t form societies. Sure there’s hooligans, but that’s not spontaneous behaviour. There’s a whole world of difference between raging for something you need and just raging because you have unresolved issues. Maybe when providers start blocking your access to on unlicenced sites you will understand what this means.

        • dr.denton says:

          {disclaimer}this is not my first language, so I apologise for any kind of weirdness, both grammatically and semantically

          Imperialist, I believe that is where you are wrong. Not all video games can be seen as art, but the medium itself has the inherent potential to be artistic.
          And even thinking of video games purely as entertainment, most of it is political and therefore should be up for public debate.

        • grrrz says:

          come on, the game devs chose specifically this subject, not baking hot-dogs or riding space poneys. Now they can not not actually deal with it. If they don’t do anything meaningful with the subject they chose then it can’t really be a good game, even if the game mechanics were well crafted. It will tell a story, wether they like it or not, and if they’re not even aware of the story they’re telling it can’t work.

    • automatic says:

      Calling it either a “protest” or a “riot” shows your own political positioning towards a movement. Nobody is politically neutral. History proves whoever says so is usually on the dominant side. People may be politically absent or ignorant, but never neutral.

    • Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

      Political and unbiased are not mutually defeating terms. The game is most certainly political, obvious grandstanding or not, though it isn’t party political.

      • grrrz says:

        well in fact there is no such a thing as “unbiased”, and I can’t trust anybody telling me they’re “unbiased” or “neutral”. (There are such things however as critical distance, self-awareness, and intellectual rigour)

  4. grrrz says:

    doing a game like this and not make it political is bullshit. give the opportunity to play “both sides” without more to say about it is bullshit. Thinking that protesters are binary violent or non-violent is bullshit. try getting hit several time on the head or breathing teargas for an hour or more and remaining perfectly stoic. There is a name for this kind of thing: riot porn. I would maybe dig a game about a long game revolution, with information war and propaganda, sabotage, pacific protests violently repressed (with infiltration maybe), holding of public or private place, . but this is not this game.

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      Risingson says:

      This. Plus “not taking a stance” is bullshit. You do take a stance saying that you don’t take it.

      It’s like those people that say that they don’t care about politics. You always know what they really support as soon as they say that.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      Yes. It would be so much better if there was an overarching storyline in which a series of escalating riots eventually leads to change of governement. You could still play the authoritarian side.

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      alison says:

      This. It’s very disappointing this game doesn’t do anything interesting. Given the developer is using real-world events as a backdrop, it comes across as a little insensitive.

      If you haven’t played it before, you might be interested in 1979 Revolution. I think it is a pretty good take on protest and revolution.

  5. josborn says:

    So basically it tries so hard not to say anything biased that it ends up not saying anything at all?

  6. Zaraf says:

    Damn I was looking for this game.
    I don’t mind the unbiased political stance, actually I think it’s a good move. Sad to read the gameplay is quite limited though.

  7. medwards says:

    Lots of folks are missing the metric that is being used to judge this game:
    As a title it should either be a good game mechanically, or it should have something meaningful thematically (in this case on the politics of mass protest and the state response to it).

    It didn’t even fail on either count, just… didn’t do anything. So it’s not good, not specifically because of its ambiguous commentary, but for a variety of failings.

    • Monggerel says:

      This, though. A game that’s no damn good to play is a bad game.

  8. jp says:

    It also seems gloriously broken, kill your own guys with molotovs and grenades.
    -> Police brutality!

  9. Monggerel says:

    Just to add to the RIOT in the comments (actually it’s more of a mild simmer, like you’re making some ham&eggs, nothing impressive), I’d mention that over here, riots mean football and football means riot. And not being able to get off the subway at certain stops because football fans are having a gay old time tearing shit up.
    Is that political? Yeah, the fans are all far-right cunts to the last of them, whatever team they happen to be throwing shit at. I hope the riot police stomps on their human faces forever.

    So there’s RIOTs for you.
    But, it’s true, they are inherently political and not taking a stance (any stance at all) is laughable. If you wanted to be simplistic, you could take turns, one time the rioters are the goodies, and the other time the police are the baddies. And vice versa. It would be simplistic and derided as such, but it would be more honest.

    Or, or, alternatively, you could take the good-old-fashioned gleeful amorality approach. That’s viable, so long as you have an at least mildly humorous tone. In fact, if you went with that, it might pull double duty as free marketing because people buzz when you kick hornet nests.

    • grrrz says:

      ok, I almost forgot about hooligans. although usually the police will be a lot more “tolerant” with them.

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      alison says:

      You have a point about sports fans, but this game is specifically uses real-world political protests as its setting, so i’m not sure they are relevant here.

      This game reminded me i added another “riot” game to my wishlist a while ago called Anarcute. That appears to be set in a “cute” world that sounds a bit like your gleeful amorality approach. I haven’t gotten around to buying it yet, but i’d be curious to hear if anyone has and if it’s worth it.

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    Chaos A.D.
    Tanks in the streets
    Confronting police
    Bleeding the Plebs!!!