At times, an event or character can be profoundly impactful to its originating fiction, but not the right choice for a dedicated spotlight project of its own. It’s hard to think of a more potent case in point than The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, a game that fundamentally misunderstands the appeal of its source franchise, focusing on a character who, by almost any measure, is the wrong choice for a lead. That said, it’s not impossible to imagine the game that might somehow have made the unusual premise click. This is not that project; like its miserable and piteous lead, this game is best avoided at all costs.
Gollum tracks the story of the titular fellow in the time period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, mostly during his slavery and misuse in Mordor and the related escape to pursue his precious ring. With its drab colors, focus on cruel and unappealing characters and chore-focused gameplay, it feels at odds with most of the core tenets and themes of Tolkien’s fiction. Even stripped of its connection to that vaunted legendarium, the storytelling is poorly paced, meandering, and often incoherent. A promising exploration of the dichotomy between the Gollum and Smeagol character initially seems compelling but is never leveraged in a meaningful way.
Gameplay is split chiefly between old-fashioned linear traversal sequences and clumsy, uninteresting stretches of stealth. In navigation of the stages, the jumping is imprecise, stages are poorly structured to communicate where you can go, and the camera is unwieldy, or sometimes even broken, flipping entirely upside down while climbing or refusing to rotate to view the next necessary jump. I died repeatedly and frequently to jumps that should have been easy or mistakenly guessed where the next platform could be reached. The only small blessing is frequent checkpoints to soften the blow of the endless repeats.
While terrible, I longed for those platforming sequences every time the game switched to one of its plentiful stealth sequences. Unlike any modern stealth game, Gollum has no interesting tricks or tools to enrich these passages. Instead, the slippery protagonist can only glide between the shadows past immeasurably stupid guards, along paths upon which it’s hard to know whether you’ll be seen. No sense of mastery or control over the environment emerges. Again, respawns are constant. Whenever the game asked me if I wanted to reload to the last checkpoint, it was a force of will to continue.
Technical problems and poor implementation abound. Sound mixing often makes voices hard to hear. Character faces (with the exception of Gollum) are poorly animated or not at all. Onscreen figures move in perfect synchrony with one another, like something seen in early PS2 games. Textures are muddy and lack detail. More than once, the game demanded an objective that didn’t function or appear and did not respawn upon a checkpoint restart; only redoing the entire level would fix the problem.
I constantly struggled against the controls, camera, and objectives as they were presented. And nothing about the story or characters of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum offers reason to push past the frustration. As a longtime fan of Tolkien’s fiction, it’s possible that I liked the game even less for the way it seemed to misuse the source material. It’s hard to have a more damning indictment than to say that this Gollum game isn’t for fans of The Lord of the Rings, but here we are.