Written by - Shmosess
Updated: June 28, 2023
Posted: May 25, 2023
It’s been a long time coming, but ‘The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’ has arrived, emerging from the depths of development after nearly a two-year delay. We had about 5 days to give this game a go and having completed the game after about 14 hours, well, we certainly have some thoughts.
Over the years the world of Middle-Earth has been explored and expanded well beyond imagination. With books, shows and movies pushing the boundaries of what we know about the fabled world we were excited, and anxious, to see what the Tolkien estate would allow the development team to do with Gollum given the mystery around his backstory.
Set parallel to the events depicted in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, we find ourselves about 60 years after Bilbo’s discovery of the ring of power. You assume the role of the enigmatic Gollum, unraveling the untold story of his perilous journey and how he outwits some of the most formidable characters in Middle-Earth.
We get to utilize his unique skills to explore and infiltrate legendary locations such as barad-dûr and Mirkwood, scaling dizzying heights, and sneaking past some stinky no-good orcs. If you love games with epic combat and grand story reveals, well..this isn’t the game for you. This is first and foremost a traversal puzzler where the focus is to get from point a to point b, usually without being detected or falling to your death. Based on everything we know about Gollum it should be the perfect setting for our deceptive and tricksy friend, but alas some things are too good to be true.
The game gets a few things, I won’t say right, but at least mediocre. And I think it’s important we start there. For one, I thought Gollum himself was decent. In a post-Lord of the Rings universe, we’ve only really had one depiction of Gollum, which was established by Peter Jackson. I commend the team on creating a visually different, yet familiar version of the iconic character. I was also worried that the lack of world class voice acting by Andy Serkis would leave the character feeling hollow, but I have to say the voice acting was well executed and you quickly become comfortable with the character as a whole. It’s safe to say this is a different Gollum by many standards but there is enough familiarity.
And what’s a true experience with this character like without the iconic dual personality banter between Gollum and Smeagol? At times you’ll be directly involved in the decision making process to determine an outcome. Pick a kind and gentle approach to the situation; well now you get to convince Gollum your way is right. Want to take a darker and potentially deadly approach? Well, Smeagol may not be on board. It’s an interesting way to make personality an interactive component within the game. I’ll be honest, I don’t fully understand how these choices vary the story, as I only played through the game once. It’s possible these decisions can lead to different outcomes, but that’s just not something I was able to fully explore.
As a lore nerd I also appreciated the inclusion of enough iconic characters to keep my interest somewhat peaked, even if it was only for brief moments. Getting to interact with characters from the books and movies was a good nod to the story we’re already familiar with. Be it Gandalf the Gray, Shelob the spider, or Thranduil the elf-king of Mirkwood there’s a sprinkling of interaction with notable characters and a dusting of references to memorable moments from the books and movies.
As you progress through the game, the environments get increasingly more difficult, offering different traversal mechanics, more complicated levels, and higher stakes. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the visuals the team implemented and found myself taking in the scenery on more than one occasion. I’m glad to see middle earth was given some time to shine.
While not revolutionary by any measure, you do have 2 tools to help solve some of the puzzles. You’re equipped with a few simple rocks you can use as distractions and this pairs nicely with what I’ll dub Gollum vision. You should be familiar with this mechanic from other games. It allows you to see past the details of the environment, including walls and obstacles, and focus solely on the enemies themselves, their movement patterns, and how to avoid them.
Sadly this is where the positives end and we have to start getting brutally honest about the things that hold the game back, and as an avid fan of Middle-Earth and the entire world of lord of the rings we have a job to do here.
Simply put there are quite a few issues with the game, and by quite a few I mean a lot.
For starters, let’s talk about character models. Except for Gollum himself (at times), the quality of the character designs falls short of every expectation you can possibly have around anything in modern gaming. Characters have little to no shading, lacked textures, and dynamic visuals in any form. Not to mention the robotic movements of the models and the constant clipping in and out of walls and floors left me constantly focusing on the out of place visuals instead of enjoying my experience with the game.
But even if visually the game was on par with modern expectations, there are so many more issues that left me scratching my head as to how this ever passed quality control. There’s just no excuse here.
Sound effects were often unsynchronized with their visual counterparts, if even present at all. And the recycled sound content simply littered throughout multiple asset classes left you experiencing the same sounds time and time again.
One of my biggest complaints however is the enemy AI, and considering how important that is in a game where the fun factor is sneaking around, avoiding detections, this is a huge issue. Oftentimes objectives would break simply because an enemy wouldn’t reset themselves after getting stuck in an animation. Times like these i was forced to intentionally wander into the open to force a restart or wait out the issue in hopes that it would fix itself, it rarely did.
that left me scratching my head as to how this ever passed quality control. There’s just no excuse here.
The initial objectives and quest dynamics were also simplistic and uninspiring, and it definitely didn’t make for a great gameplay experience. Objective consisted of “follow this orc”, “walk back to your cell”, or “collect 5 ID tags”. It wasn’t engaging, quite the opposite, it felt like busywork. In the first few chapters of the game, the objective ‘go back to your cell’ occurred more times than I could count, and every time I would audibly groan as I was forced to make the long trek back. It was exhausting for all the wrong reasons.
Mechanically, I think the goal may have been to slowly introduce the players to the various mechanics, but let me be clear, there’s not a lot to unpack here. I think gamers writ-large, even casual players understand concepts like run, jump, climb, swing, and wall run, and that’s all we’re talking about here. It’s not complicated, and not something we need almost 5 hours of game time to learn. It doesn’t help that objectives were short and often interrupted by unnecessary and awkwardly directed cutscenes.
For you collectors out there, you may be happy to know that, yes, collectibles are a thing, but I’ll be honest, I have no idea why or what purpose they serve. There’s no real lore associated with them, they don’t unlock anything, they just exist. And they weren’t even interesting. A nail, fish bones, a flower; all common items that had no inspiration and left nothing to the imagination. The fact that the game doesn’t even hint at some sort of reward for your efforts instantly makes me believe the system is there simply to chew up your time.
What was probably the single most disappointing thing about the game was at the very core of the lord of the ring: Gollum, the puzzles. Lacking creative problem-solving opportunities, the paths and solutions are almost always linear, offering limited choices in what players can or can’t do. You’ll find you have to avoid enemies in numerous situations, but there’s really only 1 path through. You don’t have multiple options at your disposal and while you can choke out certain enemies to make a path easier to move through, that option is limited only to those without helmets, which was a rare find. This dynamic is early 2000’s thinking in a big budget title and ultimately boils down to ”the devs way or the highway”.
I actually ended up breaking the game a couple times because I found an alternative way to an objective, only to find I couldn’t actually activate it. Turns out, this wasn’t the “right” way to play the game. In those cases I would have to start over and go through the specific trigger point the devs had designated in order to activate the objective cutscene. As a player it was deflating and as someone that’s used to the flexibility and creative options often given to players nowadays this felt like a huge step backwards. After chapter 5 the traversal complexity definitely picked up and there were larger and harder puzzles to solve, but the game still suffered from the “one path to rule them all” problem.
Pivoting a bit let’s talk narrative. Surely this Tolkien tale has some high points? I’m sure the actual story does, but the implementation of said story seems to jump around, often in disjointed interactions and unrelatable characters. It fails to create a strong narrative thread that captivates players and drives their curiosity. I was often introduced to a character in a chapter, only to be given the option at the end to kill them or let them go. Either choice resulted in them no longer being in the story, so the decision felt pointless, and the character themselves, quickly forgettable.
It fails to create a strong narrative thread that captivates players and drives their curiosity.
While visually the game has a few standout moments, overall there were more distractions that kept popping up that pulled me out of the world of middle earth that I love so much. Whether it was that elf that was just hovering above the ground or halfway clipped through a wall, or the rope asset that simply didn’t render into the game, I just couldn’t see past these constant issues that were regular interruptions to my experience.
To put it bluntly, ‘The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’ offers a unique perspective on one of the most fascinating characters in Middle-Earth lore. The traversal puzzles and mechanics I had hoped would add some serious depth to the experience were simply not enjoyable and regularly bogged down by constant and immersion-breaking technical and narrative flaws. Die-hard fans of Tolkien’s work may find some small enjoyment here and there, but I can’t imagine it’ll meet the high expectations of the fanbase. ‘The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’ falls short by almost every measure and fails to be a memorable or even a fun game.