Gollum is a miserable creature. His fate, not entirely evil but certainly not kind, is cruelly linked to that of the Ring, whose devotion forces him from Mordor to a mountain cave and back again. Arguably the most interesting character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, many will immediately associate him with Andy Serkis’ scene-stealing performance in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. But it’s about time the creature got another chance.
The Lord of the Rings is told from the perspective of Frodo and Gollum is characterized as such. But what would it be like to live inside his mind, to know what is going on as he struggles between Smeagol, the poor prahobit who stumbled upon Sauron’s treasure many years ago, and Gollum, the personality that emerges deep inside when they are around A ring? If Lord of the Rings: Gollum was a thing, it would be pretty damn boring.
Gollum (the play) feels out of time. The graphics are dated and while I wouldn’t have minded a stylized approach rather than creating ‘realistic’ Orcs at the cost of more interesting mechanics, the facial animations are garbled, the textures flat and the physics unrealistic. Gollum’s legs hang stiffly as he clings to the beam, his hair regularly cuts across his forehead, and the entire lower half of his face sometimes moves instead of just his mouth, with the sound arriving seconds later.
The mistakes don’t stop there. We were told to turn off Gollum Hair Simulation (yes this is a real setting and yes it needs to be fixed in time for launch) for the game to run properly on PS5, I fell several times inside walls and ramps which made me want to restart ran entire chapters to advance, and jumping from the top of ladders often led to collisions with the ceiling and Gollum falling to his death. The latter isn’t so much a bug as it is a design flaw: if you want the player to jump from a height, make sure the character can actually jump from the point at which it’s prompted.
All of this would be forgiven if there was at least a strong Tolkien-based story to pull you through, right? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the story of Gollum is based on a few blank lines from The Lord of the Rings and it shows. There is no narrative tension, the first half of the game revolves around a simple ‘escape from Mordor’ which we already know Gollum did, which is not expanded upon in any meaningful way. I had my hopes up at the start as there is a nice shot of Gandalf interrogating Gollum, but nothing comes of it. We move from escaping the gray walls and red lava of an overcharged Mordor to escaping the (admittedly more visually interesting) prison in Thranduil’s halls.
The game is as boring mechanically as it is aesthetically. The stealth missions are as dated as the character animations, forcing you to do a lot of side quests and often hiding in the shadows. Throwing rocks to distract guards was no longer innovative or interesting a decade ago. Platforming is similarly archaic: climbing a wall that has a certain pattern, jumping from one section to another, swinging from conveniently placed beams, you know the drill. It was only challenging when a section didn’t work as expected, a problem made worse by the fact that at the start you’re presented with a long panning shot of the exact path you need to take through the level. There are no alternative routes and few interesting events.
Gollum’s decisions are the most interesting part of the game, but only because of the lack of quality elsewhere rather than any positive effects of their own. There is a basic division between Smeagol’s and Gollum’s choices regarding being nice or nasty. Share your meager portion of wormy bread or keep it to yourself. Scream at your allies who aided in an escape attempt, or bait an evil orc prisoner. You get the picture. I tried to play as Smeagol as much as possible, venturing into Gollum’s territory only when absolutely necessary – to save an ally’s life and such. However, it’s always been easy to convince the other half of Gollum’s brain, with dialogue options reminiscent of the Harry Potter Sorting Hat quizzes that put you in Slytherin if you say you’re going to kill a house elf. Sticking with one personality throughout seemed to have little effect on future decisions, but if this game was in any way fun, I’d replay it to see alternative outcomes. It’s not, so I won’t.
Not much even for die-hard LotR fans. Seeing the inner workings of Mordor sounds like fun, but it’s actually boring because most of the stuff is built into the gameplay. Do you want to see Orcs squabbling and Sauron’s senior staff struggle for power? No, you herd angry cattle because we needed a minigame. One moment that seems made for the fans, climbing the oft-remembered war machine Grond, leans too far in the other direction and becomes shallow fan service. I’m sure the Sindarin is top-notch – I’m a historian, not a linguist – but the best thing for Tolkien fans is the glossary, accessible from the main menu, which contextualises most of the game as you play it. But no, Melia’s belt is not a physical object.
Gollum isn’t a good game, but it has its moments. I felt real panic as the Nazgul closed in on me in the earliest stages, only to realize it was Gollum’s capture scene and there was no escape. While many exciting set pieces involving fallen beasts and the like were pushed into the scenes, this captured the fear that Gollum felt. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only thing I felt during the entire game. Gollum’s characterization is poor, and you’ll end the game with exactly the same feelings about Tolkien’s pitiful creature that you started with. There are more positives – even the character designs are a phenomenal interpretation of Tolkien’s descriptions, and it’s inspired by the creepy folk horror Gloomy Elves – but they’re not enough to save this boring game.
Rating: 1.5/5. A copy of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is provided by the publisher.
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