The Stoor hobbit Sméagol, corrupted into the twisted form of Gollum by the One Ring, is not the most obvious protagonist for a video game. But there is potential for the dual personalities of The Lord of the Rings’ sneakiest character to translate into fun gameplay. A battle between cowardice and vindictiveness, fought within the very mind of your playable character, could spin off into challenging choices and unique mechanics. Sadly it looks as if the upcoming The Lord of the Rings: Gollum from developer Daedalic Entertainment is struggling to find such an entrancing angle.
During a recent hands-off presentation I was shown just over 20 minutes of beta gameplay footage from The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. This was split across two Middle-earth locations: Cirith Ungol, the path that runs through the mountains of Mordor and acts as the stage for the game’s first chapter, and Thranduil the Elvenking’s Woodland Realm. While Gollum is inspired by the books rather than the movies these locations draw from more or less the same palette used for Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic, and so are instantly recognisable.
Taking place just a few years before The Fellowship of the Ring, the story sees Gollum desperately searching for his precious ring while attempting to stay out of Sauron’s clutches. This scenario forms the framework of a stealth game in which you must avoid fights at all costs, lest you find yourself captured by the dark lord’s servants.
Gollum is a linear game made up of what Daedalic says are mostly confined environments, explored through a combination of stealth and climbing. While frequent use of both are required, there are sequences in which you can opt for your preferred approach. A pathway patrolled by enemies, for instance, may have a sneaking route for you to follow among the shadows, allowing you to wait unseen for orcs to pass before moving into the next concealing patch of shrubbery. But that same path may also have walls covered in handholds that allow you to scale over and around those same enemies.
As Gollum is completely outmatched in strength by even the lowliest orc, combat is entirely out of the question. Enemies that block your path must be dispatched with sneakier methods. The example from the presentation showed Gollum throwing a rock at a lamp to distract an orc, causing them to fall into a pit and be eaten by resident giant arachnid, Shelob. This was clearly a scripted tutorial event, but hopefully later levels allow inventive and freeform use of distractions and traps.
While Gollum can’t fight, he can murder via the time-honored tradition of stealth takedowns. But strangling unaware enemies drains your stamina meter, and if you don’t have enough endurance to finish the job then it’s game over. Daedalic explains that there is some leeway to escape enemies should they spot you, but being very close to alerted foes will result in them capturing you. This adds a substantial amount of risk to takedowns, but it does raise concerns about how prevalent instant-fail stealth will be across the entire game.
Thankfully Gollum doesn’t always need to get close to enemies, as sometimes he can simply clamber past them. Rather than the ‘climb anything’ design of games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild and recent Assassin’s Creeds, Gollum uses predetermined paths through the environment. That’s not inherently a bad thing — it’s arguably better suited to the somewhat puzzle-adventure vibe Gollum is seemingly going for — but the visual design of the paths shown in the demonstration was, simply put, ugly.
Among the gloomy rock faces of the Mordor mountains were perfect, highly-visible lines for Gollum to shimmy along. Vertical routes were covered in climbing vines that hung unnaturally, like thick carpets. Rock formations in the Woodland Realm had strangely flat surfaces and rounded edges instead of naturally craggy finishes, which made the caverns look weirdly manufactured. Only reinforcing that feeling were the many routes that had arrows painted on the surface to indicate direction of travel, which seems entirely out of place in Tolkien’s world. Could this not have been scrawlings in Black Speech, akin to how God of War uses runes on its own climbing paths? Nevermind the war for the ring, it seems as if there’s a war between environment and level design.
There’s also a struggle to make the world distinct from the most famous Lord of the Rings adaptation. Gollum mostly looks and sounds like the Andy Serkis version from the movies, save for his shock of black hair, with each side of his dual personality having similar vocal and movement traits. It makes the performance seem a bit like an impression rather than a fresh interpretation of the book.
The two personalities of Gollum and Sméagol become a gameplay mechanic during ‘conflict moments’; scenarios in which they argue and you must pick a side. The example provided in the demonstration featured Sméagol wishing to befriend a beetle while Gollum, who suspected it of being Sauron’s spy, insisted on squashing it. It was a pretty underwhelming moment, but hopefully these sequences provide a stage for much more dramatic choices as the story unfolds. Daedalic promises that these choices will change the outcome of situations, affect how others perceive Gollum, and even dictate the fates of certain characters.
There’s definitely some BioWare-ish potential in those choices, but I’m left a little puzzled as to why The Lord of the Rings: Gollum doesn’t appear to be doing more with the concept. I can envision a game in which opting for Sméagol choices enhances your climbing skills, providing more options that suit that conflict-adverse side of the character, while choosing to focus on the Gollum personality buffs your stealth toolkit. But there are no unlockable skills; Daedalic confirmed that Gollum has all of his abilities from the very start of the game.
With no ability-based character development across the span of the game, level design will have to be incredibly varied and inventive to continually offer engaging challenges and a sense of progression. But even the Elvenking’s Halls segment of the presentation, taken from halfway through the game, seemed to be made up of little more than climbing ledges and pillars with no real need for overcoming obstructions. Some climbing surfaces do require stamina management to traverse, but that didn’t appear to offer any significant challenge. I’m left with the impression of a game that will simply ask us to move from A to B down linear pathways without much opportunity for experimentation or expression.
Hopefully that’s not the case. Hopefully both segments of the game shown in the presentation are just poor examples of what Daedalic has crafted. Or perhaps Gollum’s strengths simply don’t lie in what was shown; it does draw from one of the deepest wells of fantasy lore in existence, afterall, so perhaps a story with complex choices is actually hiding behind this dull slice of gameplay. But for now, I’m left with the underwhelming impression of a simple game that would have landed better in the era when Peter Jackson’s trilogy was still in cinemas than it will in 2022.
We’ll see if that feeling is right when The Lord of the Rings: Gollum releases on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on September 1.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.
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Author: Matt Purslow