The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review — Time’s too precious for this sneaky action game
Tolkien’s sagas aren’t exactly short of heroes, so there’s something endearingly twisted about focusing a game on one of its more ambiguous figures, Gollum. Caught between darkness and redemption, hope and the corruption of the ring, he’s a fascinating subject for a tale that spans the time between The Hobbit and its epic sequel.
Sadly, Daedelic Entertainment’s game struggles with knowing what to do with Gollum, and with making what ideas it has work. What’s left is as tiresome and tricksy as any schlep across the swamps and wastes to Mordor.
That’s where this game kicks off, with Gollum imprisoned in the mines under Sauron’s stronghold, Barad-dûr, after being captured and interrogated by the Dark Lord and his Nazgul chums. Gollum soon has his mind on escape, and on finding the hateful Baggins and recapturing his ‘precious’.
The scrawny wretch isn’t a natural for fighting or feats of bravery, but he’s a dab hand at sneaking, throwing stones, and throttling — and a limber little fellow all around. Perhaps that’s why the game goes heavy on a mix of platforming and stealth, as Gollum navigates the cliffs and caverns, and creeps past stupid orcs.
The problem is that neither the stealth nor the platforming is all that entertaining. Early sections in the mines are padded out with pointless busywork, just to remind you that a mine slave’s life isn’t much fun. Missions, where you collect tags from dead miners or set off explosive charges, are only alleviated when you get a more exciting quest to steal a map from a well-guarded office, posing interesting questions about Mordor’s bureaucracy, if little else.
Boring sections and forgettable characters are one thing, but both the stealth and the platforming have issues. Poor visibility and insta-death perils make the jumping and climbing painful, while the controls aren’t as responsive as they could be. The stealth sections might have only one safe route through, leaving you to work out what the developers intended, using Gollum’s instincts, highlighting enemies and useful objects, for hints. Too many moments rely on cheap distractions, or on simply middling through, and one slip nearly always means failure. It’s like playing a Stealth game from the early Noughties, and not in any enjoyably retro kind of way.
The graphics don’t help, either. The scenery and architecture are occasionally stunning, while some of the character designs show signs of real imagination, pushing away from the looks established in the Peter Jackson films. Yet, close up, objects and characters look rough. Even Gollum himself is a puppet-like, glassy-eyed horror, with none of the emotion of the motion-captured creature portrayed by Andy Serkis in the films.
And for a game that’s been years in development, it’s awfully buggy. Hopefully, the worst will be fixed near launch, but we had crashes during play and one sequence where a ferocious beast that was meant to chase our hero couldn’t be persuaded to even move.
This is all a shame, because underneath all this there are signs of real potential. It’s great to see new takes on established characters and settings, and a new twist on old tales. Gollum’s story doesn’t always ring true, but some sensitivity and effort have gone into making it fit. There’s an interesting moral choice mechanic pitting Gollum’s nasty side against his alter-ego Sméagol’s better nature. Whichever way you go, you need to convince the other half. You could be tempted to play through just to find out how your choices pan out.
As the action shifts from Mordor to Mirkwood, the game opens up and the colour scheme grows less drab, while the odd puzzle breaks up the monotony of all the leaping and sneaking around. By then, however, it’s probably too late, and most players will have abandoned Gollum and his adventures. There are better ways to spend your precious time.