The Lord of the Rings: Gollum Review
Following the release of the 2001 The Lord of the Rings film, the fantasy universe created by J. R. R. Tolkien was catapulted into the spotlight. More successful films followed, and it wasn't long before many developers realized that this world of sorcery and combat would be ripe for many types of video game adaptations. From MMORPGs to action games and RTS, the realms of Middle-earth have been recreated a number of times over the past two decades. But having an established lore to draw upon doesn’t guarantee success, and many attempts did indeed falter. The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is the newest game to try and draw players into the fictional setting, this time from the perspective of perhaps its smallest and sneakiest character. Unfortunately, a wealth of issues means that the game is destined to stay in the grim darkly lit shadows of the franchise.
The events of the game take place between The Hobbit film, when Bilbo Baggins takes the One Ring from Gollum, and The Fellowship of the Ring film. Gollum has been captured and placed into prison. While captive, he is confronted by the wizard Gandalf, who wants to hear of the creature's adventures. The two chat over the course of the campaign, creating a narrative backdrop, while the players relive the events of the past few years from Gollum's perspective. It turns out to be a fairly engaging way to structure the story, if only the events that are recapped were of any interest.
Gollum tells the wizard about his time of wandering into Mount Doom, where orcs capture him and put him into slavery. In these dark pits, he is given tasks such as collecting tags off dead slave bodies, dealing with toxic fumes, and dispensing food. It's all quite dreary and not fun to experience, and neither is it fun to play through. These essentially amount to very basic quests, and with the gameplay being in a poor state, the overall oppressiveness of the experience certainly weighs heavily. Whether it was intentional or not, the game definitely manages to hone-in on a miserable experience of one of the weakest creatures of the Lord of the Rings lore.
Gollum, also named Sméagol, could have been an interesting character to explore. But to serve as a protagonist, the game has to make him speak quite a bit and become a key character in the story, which definitely puts him into a spotlight that he's not ready for. Hardcore fans of this universe will probably detest playing as this creature and not some powerful hero, but newcomers may find something slightly alluring in this journey. At least, his portrayal is believable, with decent voice acting that mimics the character from the films, as he talks to himself plenty with his split personality. Other characters are also decently voiced.
However, there's no ignoring the fact that the game looks quite poor. The environments are barebones and lack detail; any interactive surfaces such as ledges to grab or vines to climb stand out like a sore thumb, and are not actually integrated into the world naturally. While you will traverse through a few different locales – dark lava pits, elven forests, etc – none of it looks particularly good. Orcs and even the main characters are badly presented and animated, making the game look like it was released a decade ago. Even Gollum himself looks low on detail and poorly rendered. The textures are muddy and low resolution, and even pre-rendered cutscenes don't look appealing. It screams of low budget for the production, and is certainly not what you expect from a nearly full-priced game. The only redeeming glimpses are provided by the soundtrack, with violins, clarinets, and percussion providing a nice backing score.
Despite looking so dated, the game does not run well either. Even on higher end hardware, the visual settings needed some serious tweaking and turning down to maintain a steady framerate. We've also encountered occasional hard crashes, and severe scripting bugs where triggers did not work properly and we had to restart from a checkpoint – or worse, an entire level, because the checkpoint save also got glitched in a weird state. Using a keyboard and mouse, there was also an issue with the camera constantly snapping the view around on its own. Enemy AI is easily abused and only leads to more scripting issues.
We usually don't leave the gameplay for last, but with a title that has so many other issues, it's perhaps fitting to leave the least offensive component to the end. Gollum is a typical third-person 3D action adventure, where you will climb, sprint, and wall-run through some basic linear levels. The controls do not feel good or precise, but thankfully they don't need to be. As a small creature you can't really get involved in direct combat, and getting attacked results in an instant game-over death screen, so most of the gameplay involves sneaking around in the shadows, occasionally defeating a lonesome guard from behind. There are many trailing sequences where you have to follow someone, which are not challenging and just get tedious.
Elsewhere, the game throws random mechanics at the wall to see what sticks (none of it does). There are one-off moments where you direct others around an area to perform tasks, and even a must-fail sequence which is always a bad idea. Gollum has a special sense that he can use to pulse through the environment and see enemies, but it's rarely used. Last but not least is an interesting mechanic where Gollum and Sméagol argue with each other internally, and players get to choose what action they wish to take and then convince the other through verbal debate. It's an interesting idea that's not always well executed, and lost in the sea of the rest of the poor gameplay.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is unfortunately a game of few redeeming qualities. Its narrative setup and some of the characters have a bit of potential, and the soundtrack is also of decent quality. But unfortunately that's where the positives end – the bland gameplay, gloomy world, and terrible visuals are further undermined by a variety of serious technical issues that lead to crashes or stalls of progress due to scripting issues. It is a 10+ hour game, so clearly the developers wanted this to be a proper adventure, but few players will be able to push through its many issues to the end. Perhaps it was a case of developers Daedalic Entertainment undertaking something beyond their experience – as until now, they have largely created 2D adventure games. Or perhaps it was a case of not enough time or budget, though the game was delayed a few times since its announcement. Either way – there's little fun to be found here, whether you are a LoTR fan or not, and even a lower price wouldn't save this title from its demise.