The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review - Don’t wants it, don’t needs it
The Lord of the Rings has often struggled to find a place in the video game world. From a mediocre MOBA to a horde of action-adventure games and even a 2007 MMO still going strong today, the franchise sometimes fails to recapture the magic of Middle-earth in virtual form. For every successful attempt, another misses its mark.
With this in mind, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum doesn’t exactly have a high bar to live up to. It’s not really aiming to compete with past entries, opting for a different spin on the classic adventure game. The titular character is an odd pick for a protagonist, but sometimes it’s the unlikeliest of places a truly great idea is born. And for a game promising to explore the history of an iconic figure integral to Tolkien’s epic, I can’t blame anyone for getting their hopes up.
Sadly, LotR: Gollum is lacking grace, polish and wit. It taunts you with familiar faces and iconographies like Gandalf, Shelob and Mordor, then subjects you to scenes of Gollum leaping away from an explosion to safety like an action movie star. The game focuses less on his compelling attributes, like his riddles and scheming, and more on his athletic abilities, the least imaginative aspect of his character.
LotR: Gollum puts the mid in Middle-earth. Its bland, restrictive gameplay will grow tiresome long before you reach the end of the game. This one should've stayed in the shadows.
From the shadows
As you might have guessed, LotR: Gollum is not a combat-heavy adventure. Lord of the Rings is an enormous tale full of heroic battles, but Gollum takes a very different approach by focusing entirely on stealth and platforming.
Unfortunately, neither its stealth nor its platforming is fleshed out at all. In the first couple of chapters, the gameplay barely extends beyond scrambling across walls and hiding from orcs. Gollum is something of a parkour master in this game, with jumps that rival Sonic bounding off a spring and climbing skills that put Nathan Drake to shame.
LotR: Gollum absorbs the most frustratingly common gameplay tropes from other mainstream titles, chews them up and spits them back at you. It’s cookie-cutter stuff; go here, press a button, go there, press another button. It never feels like you’re really in control, merely riding through some kind of vaguely Lord of the Rings-themed amusement park. The most you’ll engage with your controller or keyboard is during platforming, which is simply not fun enough to carry the game.
You kill enemies by running up to them and holding Q for a while. That’s it. Gollum is too weak to kill orcs wearing helmets though, so most of your time will be spent skulking in the shadows waiting for the AI to slowly move down their predetermined path. There’s also a lot of trailing. That means you’ll be stuck walking behind characters who seem to move just a tiny bit slower than you constantly. The game wastes your time at almost every turn.
Precious little to see or do
For a short, linear game to be worth your while, it needs to have some kind of outstanding factor. A compelling story, exceptional gameplay, gorgeous visual design - any of these things can lift a game high above its contemporaries, regardless of how much content is on offer. Gollum falls utterly short of such qualities. It’s ten chapters of fetch quests, climbing and hiding from orcs. The gameplay never evolves and there’s no sense of progression.
The voice acting and character designs generally fall flat too. Gollum’s voice is competent enough, but the characters as a whole lack the gravitas or heart required for Middle-earth. Most come off as basic impressions of the films - a slippery slope when the originals are so loved and revered. Still, it isn’t enough to pull you out of the world most of the time.
The same can’t be said for the constant interruptions. Every few minutes of traversal leads to another cutscene or a break in the pacing. It’s difficult to feel immersed in the role when a cutscene ends and the game exclaims “New objective: Go to sleep”. Often LotR: Gollum feels like you’re running through a list of chores, going where the game tells you to go and engaging in the slightest flourishes of gameplay along the way.
Wicked, tricksy, false
Gollum himself isn’t entirely wasted as the game’s main star. His split personality with Smeagol is constantly referenced through voice lines and plays a role in the choices you make at various points in the story.
Once you’ve made a critical choice, you must convince your other half to side with you. Whether it’s Gollum persuading Smeagol to abandon an ally or Smeagol reminding Gollum of another character’s nastiness, these decisions are a somewhat enjoyable change of pace. Unfortunately, they’re extremely brief. They’re also very basic - to win an argument you pick one of a few dialogue choices, and the right one is often obvious.
Fans of Gollum may still get something out of this game, but it’s hard to justify such a singular focus on a character drastically lacking in abilities that translate to compelling gameplay ideas. The list of potential Lord of the Rings video games goes on and on, and a game about Gollum is nowhere near the top for most people. We know his story, and there’s not much worthwhile lore to be learned from showing his mundane prison routine in Mordor or his relationship with a blind elf.
A troubled journey
Predictably, the game is pretty rough all around. Trailers didn’t exactly do much to win over the general audience, and the game follows suit with poor animations and passable visuals. The game bizarrely requires sky-high PC specs to run at recommended settings, which is odd for a game that looks so entirely average. I played on a lower-end PC and the game was certainly playable, but rather choppy.
There are some nice-looking areas, but much of the game takes place in dark caves or dungeons where the graphics fail to stand out. The settings are limited, and you can’t turn off motion blur - which is almost a dealbreaker for people like me who can’t stand its abhorrent, nausea-inducing effect.
Despite delays, the game feels unfinished. In my playthrough, the audio would occasionally cut out and lines would repeat themselves. Gollum regularly got stuck on terrain, which is ridiculous considering how little space the game actually gives you to move around. It’s easy for your camera to clip through that terrain too, exposing the immersion-destroying void hidden behind every cliff face or cave wall.
The game never allows you to have any kind of freedom. Perhaps that’s for the best - the more you stray from the path, the more you realise why the game had to be so restrictive. At one point I got annoyed with one of the game’s attempts at a “puzzle” and ended up accidentally climbing out of the map. After exploring an entire area I wasn’t yet supposed to, the progression broke and I was forced to restart the level.
It was always going to be tough to pull off a Gollum game, but there’s simply nothing precious about this amateur stealth adventure.
A general lack of refinement lurks in every shadowy corner of LotR: Gollum, a game disappointingly barren of interesting ideas or substantial gameplay. Even the most loyal Lord of the Rings fans will struggle through it. If you value your time, do yourself a favour and avoid it like the Eye of Sauron.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.