‘The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum’ hands-off preview: precious story, lacklustre stealth

'The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum' promises a compelling slice of Tolkein lore, but is yet to sell the game's stealth system

Middle Earth isn’t the nicest neighbourhood. Even the downtime between Bilbo’s jaunt to the Lonely Mountain and the Fellowship’s epic quest, a time period mostly left to the Tolkien fans’ imaginations, was far from peaceful – and The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum is out to prove that.

A stealth-oriented third-person action game, The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum follows the titular character (also known as Sméagol) on a quest to retrieve his precious. The poor cretin has had a run of bad luck, and a hands-off preview provided by developer Daedalic Entertainment picks up as Gollum tries to escape from Mordor, where he was caught and tortured by the series’ main villain, Sauron.

Soon into the preview, the bug-eyed elephant in the room becomes apparent: Gollum is one of the few characters in The Lord Of The Rings that can’t really fight. This means that when you’re playing as Gollum, completing levels involves using your smarts and avoiding conflict. You’re capable of sneaking up on lone Orcs and choking them out, but that takes energy that needs to be replenished by foraging for food – and if a second Orc spots you throttling his pal, Sméagol’s a Sméagoner. Instead, Gollum is better off crawling through handy tufts of long grass and throwing rocks to distract patrols and get them out of his path. This lends a great portrayal of Gollum as a sneaky, slimy backstabber; but even during the preview it feels a bit repetitive. There’s not too much variation on the tried-and-true stealth formula used by action games and as a result, there’s no guarantee that Gollum’s skulking won’t get stale by the end of the game’s roughly 25-hour runtime.

Gollum
The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum. Credit: Daedelic Entertainment.

That being said, there is one interesting caveat: as displayed in The Lord Of The Rings, Gollum is a character in turmoil. Formerly a Hobbit by the name of Sméagol, years of hardship (and ownership of the one ring) birthed an alternate personality called Gollum. Throughout the game, you’re tasked with shaping the character through a series of moral decisions. This starts off humorous – Gollum convinces poor Sméagol to eat a beetle, claiming self defence. Later on, Daedalic Entertainment says players can expect bigger choices, such as choosing whether to betray allies or stay true to them.

These decisions will have an effect on Gollum further down the line, where the strength of each personality will determine which allies are available in future conflicts. It’s an intriguing premise, and it will be interesting to see how far the developer takes it: will Sméagol be able to get along with the elves and rangers he meets on his quest, or will the conniving Gollum prefer to sic Shelob (who does make an appearance) on anyone with their backs turned?

The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum. Credit: Daedelic Entertainment.
The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum. Credit: Daedelic Entertainment.

Further into the game, a second level – showing Gollum sneaking through the halls of the River Elves – takes on a more platform-puzzle style of play. The same stealth system is still there, but Gollum’s goals get a bit more interesting. During the level, an appearance from Gandalf provides some fantastic exposition that helps to weave Gollum into the events of The Lord Of The Rings. Far and away, this is the most promising element of Gollum for Tolkien nerds – Gollum doesn’t stray from the patches of information already written on this time period, and instead fleshes out the little that’s available. It’s incredibly well done: Gollum’s misadventures feel natural and completely believable.

Daedelic Entertainment has shared that Gollum will hit on all of the areas mentioned in the books – from Gollum’s imprisonment in Mordor to his journey down to Moria, where he begins to stalk the Fellowship in earnest, and as long as the game doesn’t take too many liberties (ahem, The Hobbit trilogy), there’s a promising story in play here.

The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum. Credit: Daedelic Entertainment.
The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum. Credit: Daedelic Entertainment.

Visually, it’s a story that looks fantastic. Mordor is grim, imposing and hellish, while the halls of Mirkwood are cold, indifferent and beautiful. As with Gollum‘s story, it’s clear that the development team is made up of passionate fans: the River King’s egotism is on full display throughout Mirkwood, with flattering larger-than-life statues of himself adorning the walls. In Mordor, Sauron’s warmongering industrial hellscape is littered with nests of stripped mines and an imposing military presence. There are a few texturing tears to note but Gollum is still in development – regardless, each level feels as different as night and day, and Daedalic Entertainment seems to have made full use of Middle Earth’s captivating world.

While The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum has a lot of promise, for a game that’s all about stealth, the mechanics for doing so seemed a bit unpolished. Several times, hyper-vigilant enemies made the system look awkward, and it felt more like trying to game an AI detection system rather than creep past living, breathing people. Gollum is still in development, so with luck these issues are buffed out, but this area of the game in particular made the developer’s planned 2022 launch feel optimistic.

With an unspecified release date, there’s a lot about Gollum that’s still up in the air. Whether Daedelic Entertainment can keep 25 hours of stealth feeling fresh – remember Alien Isolation? – remains to be seen, and it’s not guaranteed that Gollum‘s issues will be tidied up come launch.

That being said, Gollum is still months away from launch – meaning the studio could have time to get things into shape. The preview has also managed to instil a lot of confidence in Daedelic Entertainment’s vision – a neat, bonus slice of The Lord Of The Rings for fans. There’s clearly a fantastic story here, and one that should have no problem reeling in The Lord Of The Rings fans: it’s just a matter of making it compelling enough to play along to.

The Lord Of The Rings: Gollum is set to launch on September 1 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S.

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