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June 2024

The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: NACON
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date: 2022/2023


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PC Review - 'The Lord of the Rings: Gollum'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on May 26, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum is all-new action adventure title that will remain true to the vision laid out in J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and will also explore new events and details related to Gollum's journey.

The Lord of the Rings has a lot of cool characters: the noble Aragorn, the enigmatic Gandalf, and the steadfast Gimli. Indeed, it is a story that shows that even the simplest of people can become heroes when the need arises, like the various hobbits. Any single one of them could be the basis for a fun gameplay experience, offering intriguing and interesting ideas. The first thing that comes to mind as a playable character is not the desiccated, barely functioning wreck that is Gollum. It would take a whole lot of work to make that mess of a character fun to play. Unfortunately, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is true to its source material in that it's sad, miserable, depressing and can't stop sabotaging itself.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is set between the end of The Hobbit and the start of Fellowship of the Rings.Gollum has lost his "precious," the One Ring, and his attempts to eke out survival without its gifts lead to him promptly getting captured by the Nazgul, who are trying to track down the ring. The unlucky creature is taken to the very depths of Mordor, where he is tortured and enslaved, and he must find a way to escape so he can make his way back to his Precious and retrieve it from those nasty, fat Hobbitses.

Unfortunately, I think that one of the game's major flaws is its basic concept. Gollum, within the confines of the original story, is an interesting character. A twisted, broken, corrupted version of a hobbit, Gollum is a dark, pitiable mirror to Frodo and Bilbo, and he serves as a potential warning of what may come. Beaten, helpless, and relying largely on being unseen and unnoticed, he's not exactly a great character to follow, at least as far as a video game is concerned. You could probably do more with a Telltale-style game focused almost exclusively on narrative, but that isn't what Gollum is. It's a video game, which doesn't work for the time and place.

Gollum can't be much in the game because he has to end up roughly where he starts in The Lord of the Rings. He's a wretched creature in a horrible world where he spent his time being beaten, tortured and helpless. He's the victim and captive of one group after another, and when he's free, he's a murderer and flesh-eater. You have a game starring a character who frankly sucks, and he's supposed to. There's a brief period when Gollum is truly malleable, but it isn't until he meets Frodo, and the game doesn't follow that, so nothing can really change.

This also brings us to the moral choices, which completely fail in a way that devalues the character. You're allowed to make choices between Smeagol and Gollum in certain situations, but the game almost exclusively makes these Good and Evil. Smeagol is presented as a pure innocent who is goaded along by the evil Gollum, but that rings incredibly hollow, especially in a game that claims to be based more on the novels, where Samwise properly dubs the duo as "Stinker and Slinker." Smeagol is horribly abused, corrupted, lonely and desperate for even the smallest act of kindness; he's a mewling and pathetic wretch. There's room for his redemption, but he can't give it to himself. Gollum simplifies this to Good Smeagol and Bad Gollum and gives little reason to ever choose Bad Gollum, and since we all know where Gollum ends up, the choices are even less satisfying.

The result is a narrative that focuses largely on the most inconsequential and unimportant story beats that are technically true to canon but about as exciting as a game based around setting up Bilbo's birthday party. The game tries to weave in some of its own original storyline, but it is boring stuff that features forgettable characters. There's no real room for it to do anything important. Offerings like Shadow of Mordor and The Third Age revel in their noncanonical status to let you punch Sauron in the face!

The lackluster and boring plot might be more easily forgiven if the gameplay offered anything interesting, but it doesn't. Gollum has all the powers of a starving semi-immortal elderly man in a loincloth — which is to say not much, beyond the ability to climb and sneak. That makes much of the game little more than an extended stealth sequence that lacks many of the tools and abilities that make stealth fun. Indeed, Gollum's toolkit is incredibly small, which is fitting for the character but would require a lot more in terms of game design to make fun. Instead, you basically jump from Uncharted-style climbing sequences to lackluster stealth sequences and back again.

The climbing sequences are OK. They're designed to reward quick movement but are nothing you haven't seen before. However, they do suffer from some very unclear signposting and somewhat floaty and awkward controls. People like to mock things like Horizon's bright yellow handholds, but Gollum runs into the opposite problem, where it can be difficult to tell what is and isn't climbable. Indeed, a good chunk of the game almost requires you to use "Gollum Sense" (think Arkham detective vision) to see where to go next. Anything that doesn't have Gollum locking onto a wall can run into the little creature feeling slippery or stiff.

The stealth just feels bad. Aside from the aforementioned lack of tools, it feels incredibly inconsistent, both in terms of when you are considered cloaked and when you are allowed to break it. One segment wanted me to run past guards. In my first two attempts, the guards caught me when I was seemingly far away from them. I got through on my third attempt, despite not doing anything differently, but the game decided I was good to go this time. The guard AI is stupid (as it would need to be due to the simplicity of stealth), and sneaking past them rarely feels satisfying. Ironically, I can say that Shadow of Mordor is a better realized and executed stealth game than Gollum, and stealth in the former is mostly optional! I rarely felt satisfied when I completed a stealth segment in Gollum; I was just glad it was over.

That's all there is to Gollum. You go from boring story sequence to unsatisfying platforming sequence to dire stealth sequence over and over. Every time I found myself in one specific segment, I found myself wishing that I was doing one of the others, only to realize that it wasn't any better, just different. The game feels like the developers realized Gollum's skill set was sneaking, cowering and being miserable, and it decided that players wanted to live that experience, even though I felt like chucking Gollum in the lava. (To be fair, there is an achievement for this.)

Sadly, the game doesn't even succeed on a visual level. Gollum attempts to diversify from the visual design of the Peter Jackson movies and make something more "true" to the books, but it doesn't nail that. Instead, it exists in a weird mid-state, where characters still pay homage to the movie version often enough that it runs into the Avengers problem of feeling like it should have just gone all the way in one direction or another. I appreciate the idea of trying to stand out by going in a new direction, but the art design doesn't carry it.

Part of that is the graphics. Gollum is not a good-looking game. The environments are muddy and consist of interchangeable corridors and dingy caves. It's appropriate for Gollum, but it's still boring. The character models are all pretty bad. Weird, dead-eyed, poorly animated dolls look like something from a decade ago. Gollum is a standout. He's well animated, and his loping movements and cowering twitches convey a lot of personality. He's not amazing, but he's well realized enough that he stands out from the much awkward-looking NPCs and enemies.

The voice acting falls into the same category. Gollum and Smeagol are pretty good. It's a heavy channeling of Andy Serkis's performance, but considering that is the iconic Gollum, there's no problem with that. Everyone else just feels dull and repetitive. Even characters who should be bombastic, like Gandalf, feel subdued and boring.

Like the character itself, Gollum is an ugly, depressing, pitiable mess that's destined for a bad end and with little to recommend it. With a stronger design behind it, this title could've perhaps been redeemed, but the version we got isn't that. It's not good, it's not entertainingly bad, and it's not even interestingly broken. It's just a lackluster, licensed game that doesn't seem to have a point, and it focuses on a character that even die-hard fans don't want to play as.

Score: 5.0/10

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