Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
May 25, 2023
Daedalic Entertainment, Nacon
Middle Earth is an incredibly interesting world to set a game in. Developers have been trying to capture the magic of Tolkien’s work in an interactive form since 1982 with The Hobbit text adventure game all the way to the present day with the announcement of a new Lord of the Rings MMO.
Despite all the different forms that a game set in Middle Earth could take, there have been a lot of misses throughout the years and most of them have been fairly straight adaptions of Tolkien’s two most popular works, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Anything that breaks the mold is interesting, but was a game about the nasty little gremlin man, Gollum, something that anyone actually wanted? Well, that I doubt.
How it plays
The game opens with a framing device. Many people who haven’t read the books don’t realise this, but the time between Bilbo’s 111th birthday and the beginning of Frodo and Sam’s journey is actually several years. During this time, Gandalf is doing a great amount of research on the Ring, and part of that is learning about the creature Gollum and his small part in Sauron’s plan. The game’s framing device actually takes place during Gandalf’s interrogation of Gollum during these years.
The main gameplay loop of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is entirely uninteresting. For most of the time I was able to play, Gollum was trapped doing slave labour in the pits of Mordor. While this is a canon part of Gollum’s story, it is incredibly boring and repetitive. Every morning Gollum wakes up in his sad little bedroom that he shares with his roommates, and then they all head down to a central landing area where they are assigned their tasks for the day.
These ‘tasks’ are short and monotonous, all boiling down to little more than micro fetch-quests where a number of objects in the area need to be interacted with. This also has to be done in the ‘right’ order. Even if you come across an object early, you aren’t allowed to touch it until you have done the others first. After you have finished your tasks for the day, you walk back to your room and put Gollum down for a nice little nap before waking up the next day to do it all again. This might surprise developer Daedalic Entertainment to hear, but there are very few people interested in playing through a slavery simulator.
There was one break in the monotony where Gollum joins with a group of other slaves to start an escape attempt in motion. While this section was slightly more entertaining as there was some stealth that needed doing and a little bit of simple platforming, I was horrified to find upon completing this mission, I was then back to doing my slave tasks again. Even after having a meeting with one of the high-ranking members in the slave pits named the Candle Man, I was just given slightly more prestigious tasks to do, which did nothing to change the utterly languid pace of the game.
This was especially disappointing, as multiple characters had referenced that the Candle Man was a lover of riddles and wordplay. I was excited, Gollum loves riddles, and I also happen to love riddles, so I was anticipating a change in gameplay. I was hoping for an intense battle of wits when I reached the top of his tower. This didn’t happen. There were one or two more of those generic moral choices, but not a riddle in sight. I don’t understand why they would let such an opportunity go to waste, it would have been such an easy way to provide deeper character to both Gollum and the Candle Man and a fun break from the usual gameplay style.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum uses a gameplay system very similar to the one we are used to seeing in Assassin’s Creed games. And while this flavour of climbing, sneaking, and stealth kills has become very widespread, Gollum, unfortunately, handles like the first games in the AC series. Messy, hard to control, imprecise. It feels like the first tentative steps of a new genre, not one that has been prevalent in video games for over a decade at this point.
Bizarrely, there is already a game that utilises these exact gameplay mechanics that is set within the Lord of the Rings canon. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a brilliant game that feels marvelous to play, each movement feels deliberate and the control is incredibly precise.
Gollum on the other hand has this horrible, floaty jump that sends him launching feet-first into the air and has no determinable weight. It makes landing on platforms difficult, especially since Gollum can only grab onto predetermined grab points. He can also swing on poles and run on walls, both of which control miserably and are bizarre to watch Gollum do. He even does that thing that all modern platforming games do when the player clings to a wall, where the character sticks their little arm out to let you know that you are ready to jump to the next grab point. It just looks weird for Gollum to have the same tells as Lara Croft and Nathan Drake, it’s uncanny.
There is a morality system in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. Like everything in the game, it is not particularly intuitive. My first encounter with one of the game’s moral choice options had me nearly howling with laughter. It is a binary choice that greatly mirrors the paragon/renegade options in the Mass Effect series with the two options simply labeled Gollum and Sméagol. It is such a surface-level observation of Gollum as a character, with Sméagol being presented as on the side of good and Gollum on the side of evil.
It lacks nuance, while Sméagol is largely more amenable, this doesn’t make him a better person. Both sides of Gollum are incredibly desperate and self-serving, this isn’t necessarily their fault, he is meant to be a reflection of how easily the ring can corrupt and ruin a person. However both Gollum and Sméagol are working towards one goal, and while one side is more likely to beg and plead and the other is more likely to resort to violence, neither of them is a good person. They both will manipulate and trick others to get what they want and the game seems too afraid to lean into this.
How it looks
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum uses a more cartoony style, but like everything else in this game, it only manages to commit halfway. There is a blatant fear in Gollum, seen in the gameplay as well as aesthetically, to do anything new. While the character designs are leaning more cartoonish with wide eyes and rounded edges, they are still obviously allusions to what the majority of the public is most familiar with: Peter Jackson’s film adaptations.
“There is a blatant fear in Gollum, seen in the gameplay as well as aesthetically, to do anything new.”
Gandalf, who only appears for a moment in the opening (he may appear again later, but I can’t speak to this fact) has a character design that leans very close to his appearance in the films and the voice actor is doing a very convincing Ian McKellen when reading his lines. Gollum’s voice is clearly meant to invoke Andy Serkis’ performance as well, and while I acknowledge that it is very difficult to escape the huge effect that Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth had on the general public, the fact that they didn’t even try to do anything different is highly disappointing.
The animations in the game are incredibly stiff and texturing is shockingly basic. The only thing preventing this game from looking like an early PS3 title at all times is the lighting. In some areas, the lighting can be very pretty and manages to make the poorly modeled areas look much better than they would under more delicate scrutiny.
Characters walk stiffly and uncomfortably, half the time mouths don’t animate during cutscenes, and hair physics are non-existent. There is nothing here to make any of the characters feel alive. The only saving grace is the voice acting. Every voice actor is clearly dedicated to their roles, and without their work, it would feel like navigating a world of plasticine dolls. The UI also leaves much to be desired, utilising a generic font and oftentimes not even having text correctly lined up in text boxes. It only serves to make the game look cheap and unprofessional.
How it really plays
I love burying the lead, but I can’t ignore it much longer and there is a reason why my review barely covers the first four levels of this game. The bugs are neverending and eternal. There is a small moment in the early sections of the game where you are offered a moral choice, should Gollum decide to kill a bug because it might be a spy for Sauron, or let it go free? Like myself, it’s pretty clear that Daedalic Entertainment decided to let the bug go, because, from the third level onwards, I experienced more crashes than I have in any other game to date. I am talking every two, sometimes three minutes if I was lucky. It was borderline unplayable.
On other occasions, I would have different, but equally damning issues. Sometimes when scuttling through a stealth section, the patrolling guards would stop in an A-Pose in the middle of the room, right where I needed to pass through. Despite not being able to move, they would always regain their sense right as I stepped in their line of sight, rendering the level impossible without a full restart.
In all my years reviewing games, I have never experienced something as truly broken as The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. Daedalic Entertainment has issued a patch in the past day or so, and hopefully, with further patches planned, all I can hope is that future players do not experience the same insulting issues that I did. Honestly, I wish that The Lord of the Rings: Gollum had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Though, I guess that is not for me to decide. All I have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to me, and I will not be wasting any more of that time playing this game.
- Talented voice acting team
- Hokey morality system
- Bugs and glitches abound
- Outdated visuals and animations
- Uninteresting gameplay
- Constant crashes
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is a buggy mess, even disregarding the constant crashes. Not only that, but it is a game void of any personality, originality, or bravery. It attempts nothing new and falls back on tropes that started falling out of style years ago, while somehow still managing to replicate them poorly. It disappoints me not just as a fan of the Lord of the Rings, but also as a fan of video games in general.