J.R.R. Tolkien is still at the top of the bestseller list when it comes to non- living authors. It is estimated that his estate earned more than $500 million dollars in 2022, including licensing out his now infamous world of Middle Earth and its familiar locations and characters for various adaptations, including video games. The newest of these – The Lord of the Rings: Gollum puts you in the role of the titular former hobbit, as he moves through the world of Middle Earth.
The game begins with you as Gollum, exploring the craggy mountainous region that serves as his home and introducing you to the controls. This is merely a flashback in the overall narrative, however, as soon you’re whisked away to a small cell in one of the elven cities, in the company of much younger versions of Gandalf and Elrond. One nice little detail is that they are known simply as “Wizard” and “Elvenking” by Gollum, which makes sense as he naturally wouldn’t be anywhere near as familiar with these characters as some of the other residents of Middle Earth, or even as you, the player. It’s also explained somewhat early on that Gollum has heightened senses, so one could assume that these senses are at work letting Gollum glean just that little bit of information about his captors.
It’s not long before you’re whisked away to The Black Pits of Mordor™, and forced to carry out menial and dangerous tasks for orc bosses. The awkward and oftentimes unresponsive controls make these tasks much more challenging than they should be, unfortunately. For example, one task involves lighting fuses and then quickly having to escape the fumes from the ensuing detonation requires precise jumping at times, something Gollum is not very skilled at, by any means.
This can lead to a lot of missed jumps and painful deaths. What’s even worse is that these issues only get worse the further you get in the game, and accurate jumping becomes even more vital. The camera isn’t the greatest either, often giving odd angles to your point of view when climbing or backwards jumping. You can manually rotate it, to a point, but in some situations, you just can’t get a good view of your surroundings, no matter what you do.
This is mitigated somewhat by the autosave feature which saves the game every few seconds as you move through the various areas. It’s almost as if the developers knew that they would need a generous and frequent autosave feature to compensate for the frequent deaths that players would surely encounter.
But floaty, imprecise jumping and an awkward camera aren’t the only obstacles standing in Gollum’s way on the road to finding The One Ring. Each area is littered with unforgiving enemies that won’t hesitate to grab Gollum and end his journey if they get so much as a whiff of him.
Areas are divided up into a series of large rooms which you have to navigate without getting caught. This involves climbing walls, stealthily crawling, moving in shadows, etc. You are aided by small stones that you can pick up to distract enemies and knock out lights, though enemies don’t stay distracted for very long.
Navigating these areas can also be something of a challenge, thanks to the fact that the only sense that you’re going the right way is a small yellow arrow, which tells you in what general direction your objective is but not how to get there. This can be frustrating as making your way through these large rooms often seems non- linear at first, but usually there is only one way to get to your destination, the most dangerous path. Since deaths are so frequent, you’ll often find yourself doing death runs:, that is, dying until you can manage a lucky run in between enemies since they are so numerous and patrol many areas you need to get to.
You also have Gollum’s heightened senses, which you can flip on with a button press. This turns the screen a stark shade of black and white, highlighting enemies in red and useful objects in blue. It also shows air currents in bright orange, which will sometimes point out where you need to go, but often only points out where you’ve already been.
The characterization of Gollum is at odds with the game itself as a whole as well. In the books and even the films, we get a picture of Gollum as a former hobbit, twisted by his obsession for The One Ring, shunned by all other creatures in Middle Earth, forced to exist in dark places. His appearance is grungy and gaunt. Yet in the game, he is wide eyed and given an almost child-like or innocent countenance. This is not the same Gollum who has lusted after The One Ring for centuries.
The often challenging and frequently unforgiving nature of the game itself creates a strange duality with the whimsical characterization of Gollum. Whereas the conversations between Gollum and Smeagol punctuate your journey through Middle Earth, the child-like sense of wonder that Gollum seems imbued with conflicts with the often harsh landscapes of Middle Earth. Although, perhaps “strange duality” when it comes to Gollum is one of the more accurate representations of the character, after all.
In the end, with its unforgiving nature, awkward jumping mechanics and frequent deaths that make replaying whole sections much more tedious than they should be, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is about as much fun as being captured by orcs and thrown into The Black Pits of Mordor™.