One does not simply walk into Mordor; instead, one might opt to climb up a wall of vines or jump from platform to platform. That’s the crux of what The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is all about.
The game positions the player as the classic Lord of the Rings villain, shining light on his previously unexplored backstory, which includes his capture and subsequent escape from the clutches of evil. It’s a novel concept that I wasn’t exactly sure would work before trying it out for myself. Given all that, I knew I needed to play The Lord of the Rings: Gollum at PAX East, and after going hands-on with it, I came away with mixed thoughts that lean positive, with more than a few caveats.
I grew up playing games like The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and The Lord of the Rings Online, all of which are legendary games that reinforced my love of Tolkien’s world in broad strokes across each of their respective genres. Going into my demo, I really wasn’t sure how well the rather unconventional The Lord of the Rings: Gollum would fit into all of that and sit with me. Of any of the Lord of the Rings video game adaptations I’ve played, it’s most similar to the opening sequences of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the PlayStation 2, which has its players sneaking out of The Shire as Frodo and company. But that comparison is only at a very rudimentary level.
Gollum is a platformer at heart, combining the world scale of the aforementioned The Fellowship of the Ring with Assassin’s Creed-inspired stealth sequences and some Tomb Raider-esque ledge-to-ledge platforming. Instead of exploring ancient ruins, though, you’re following linear, obstacle-riddled passages as Gollum. It doesn’t always work. The demo build suffered from frame rate issues – at least on the computer I was provided – that muddied its animations and made its moment-to-moment action feel somewhat disjointed. Thankfully, this is something the developers can polish up before its release in May. What has me more concerned is the game’s balance between its humor and gameplay.
This game’s sillier tone might turn off quite a few hardcore Tolkien fans, but this actually made it a more enjoyable experience for me. Unfortunately, the platforming and punishing stealth sections sometimes felt at odds with its character-driven storytelling.
Daedalic Entertainment’s intention with this game was to expand Gollum’s story and give players a new lens through which to view Middle-earth itself. Gollum makes for an unconventional, but interesting video game protagonist who has a unique stature. He can sneak, climb, jump, and wall-run, but he can’t attack enemies directly. This forces you to come up with alternative ways to avert danger by sneaking behind them before taking them down. This is where things can get annoying, as Gollum’s controls weren’t as responsive as I’d hoped, and you get an instant “Game Over” screen when the player is spotted, even from a distance.
Such moments are poorly telegraphed. There’s an awareness bar that appears above an enemy’s head when you’re in danger of being spotted, but it can be unpredictable. This issue was frustrating, and there’s a clear dissonance between that gameplay and significantly more entertaining moments, like when I hid behind a bush and listened to two patrolling orcs talk about which of them was going to single-handedly take on the giant spider queen Shelob. Meat is clearly back on the menu, and Mordor’s corporate ladder has never been livelier.
Gollum’s character model also takes some getting used to. His big green eyes and baby face are definitely not what fans might expect, and this version of Gollum certainly misses out on drawing from the phenomenal look that performance actor Andy Serkis gave Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the same character in his genre-defining live-action adaptations. Still, I do appreciate The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s clear nod to Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation here, as Gollum’s eyes are bright green, and are the only thing you’ll see glinting out from behind foliage when hw’s hiding.
Gollum’s look can also lead to some unintentionally funny moments, like when I missed a jump and caused Gollum to land headfirst into a rock and watched his body crumble as a “Game Over” message appeared on the screen. This caused some guy standing behind me to joke that this is how Gollum canonically dies in this universe and was even funnier because it happened during one of the titular character’s monologues, of which there are many.
This story is competently told through Gollum’s perspective as he narrates the events of his escape from Sauron’s clutches to Gandalf in an elven prison. But I’m not sure how strong The Lord of the Rings: Gollum’s narrative is ultimately going to be in its final version, given how little time I was granted to get a feel for the characterizations of its major characters. A handful of classic Tolkien characters did show up during the cutscene at the beginning of my demo.
The perpetually serious-faced Elven king Thranduil made an appearance, and Gandalf retained his signature wizardly presence, even though some admittedly minor alterations to both characters’ appearances may upset longtime fans. My favorite bits of storytelling happened when I found some interesting spots where I could observe different items in the world. Gollum would give his thoughts on what he was looking at in these moments, providing a perspective on this world I haven’t really experienced before.
The occasional neat lore bits aside, I can’t help but be worried that the defining moment of my 30-minute demo was when that guy joked about how Gollum died in a funny way as I was struggling to climb and carry out the game’s platforming. Still, I couldn’t help but smile at how it all came together.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum still feels a little too undercooked for its slated May 25 release date, but even when it doesn’t work as intended, it’s still fun to play. I’m definitely excited to play more when it launches on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC.
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