I knew going in that The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was not going to be a Game of the Year contender, but I had hoped that the wealth of lore and narrative that make up Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world would carry this stealth-platforming title through its weaker gameplay elements. Yet unsurprisingly, many would say, Gollum is not a compelling enough character to base an entire video game on, and adding to this, deciding to create an entire story that Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring managed to tell in a single scene (the one where we first meet briefly Gollum in the Mines of Moria and then Gandalf tells Frodo about what had happened to Gollum in Mordor) means that the actual narrative here is really nothing to hammer home about, even if it does have plenty of nods and references to other Middle-earth stories and events.
The narrative, as I just mentioned, explores the years (yes, years) that Gollum spent trapped as a slave of the Orcs in Mordor, and then as a prisoner of the Elves in Mirkwood. Spanning ten chapters in length, the first six are all dedicated to exploring pretty much the same dark and grim Mordor landscapes, as being a slave, Gollum is confined to the same areas for the most part. And, while Gollum isn't a slave in the Mirkwood sections of the game, the same repetitive level design style applies.
The level design is also strangely hands-off at times. You'll come across multiple occasions where Gollum is stuck in a prison car and is essentially unable to move, all before being thrown into a loading screen. It makes you wonder why that 40 seconds of travel time is even in the game, and why it's used so frequently, as it kills any momentum the title begins to generate. There are a few moments that use differing gameplay methods, like a Crash Bandicoot-style running segment when attempting to escape Shelob, but these are far and few between. For a title that intends to captivate with an engaging narrative, you'd expect something more to the same calibre of Uncharted, where the plot is always moving forward and taking you to new areas and locations, and yet LotR: Gollum seemingly wants you to feel like the ugly and deformed titular creature: like a prisoner with no escape.
But at least the story has interesting twists and moments, right? Well unless you count gawking at the screen when Gandalf the Grey, the Mouth of Sauron, Shelob, Thranduil, or other iconic Middle-earth characters make their appearances, not a whole lot really happens. It's just Gollum attempting to survive and do whatever it takes to get his hands back on the One Ring, which in and of itself is the exact same Gollum narrative we have seen any other time the character has popped up in the media. The title at least tries to add compelling gameplay elements to the whole Gollum-Smeagol split-personality dynamic, with this working as a sort of debating dialogue suite, but in practice, it's incredibly hollow and used very infrequently.
Since the narrative and dialogue options aren't particularly well realised, it puts a huge amount of pressure on the actual gameplay, and this is one of most frustrating parts of the game entirely. Gollum is not a strong or courageous character, meaning you are always skulking about and attempting to use cunning to outwit the dangers that oppose you. As you'd imagine, stealth is a massive part of this game, but it's not stealth like Hitman or even The Last of Us, it's very fundamental and barely feels like a serious gameplay feature. You can hide in shadows and under specific objects, you can interact with very infrequent things and throw rocks to briefly distract enemies, and when the right moment arises, you can overwhelm and throttle singular enemies to death - although this takes some time and makes a lot of noise. Since the enemy NPCs are incredibly dumb, you don't really need to get creative with how you approach stealth segments, which is counterintuitive to how stealth should really work.
Then there's the actual platforming. The platforming sections remind me of an Uncharted game, and if there was a better stealth or combat offering matched up with a more compelling story, well... then you have the core pieces for a Middle-earth take on Uncharted. But, Gollum misses those latter points, and in return you get a game that is 80% jumping and shimmying across ledges, and you'd be correct to assume that it begins to get increasingly boring the more time you spend doing it. The biggest problem with the platforming however, is that the controls are shockingly bad and will routinely be the reason you die in these segments of the game. The platforming feels clunky and messy, and makes you want to hurl your controller at the wall when Gollum overshoots a jump that any platforming game character would effectively snap onto. I can't for the life of me figure out why this game is so abysmal to actually control, when there are so few mechanics and unique elements at play.
This brings me onto the next major part of LotR: Gollum that is hard to digest: there's no progression. As the narrative steadily trudges along, Gollum doesn't acquire new movement abilities or items. How the game starts is how the game ends in a mechanical sense, and this means that there are essentially no surprises in store for you along the way. Well... that is other than the Companion system that gets very occasionally used, with this allowing you to tell a companion what to do (for example, to activate a lever). If this sounds exciting, get your expectations in check right now, as you don't see this mechanic used very often, and when it is used, it's barebones at best.
When it comes to venturing off the beaten path, there's very little on offer here either. LotR: Gollum is a very, very linear game, and any exploration opportunity is usually tied to a collectible being placed in a section of a level. These collectibles are quite frankly not worth your time either, as they offer no narrative or significance from a lore standpoint, and don't do anything to enhance or improve the gameplay in any sense. The fact that there isn't even a difficulty option says a lot about this game.
Then there's the performance. From a frame rate sense, there were a few dips on PC, but nothing of major note, and generally speaking, the presentation of the game is actually pretty good in-game. The character models, however, are horrifying in-game and Daedalic has moved heaven and earth to make Gollum look as ugly as possible in cinematic sequences to boot, which makes you question why we ever see the character like this. But otherwise, LotR: Gollum is littered with minor and weird bugs and issues. Be it characters opening doors without any interactions, NPCs walking through objects, textures popping in, cinematics losing their sense of perspective and camera placement, there are a whole slew of minor things that make this game that little bit harder to find any moments of brilliance.
I would love to be able to tell you that Daedalic is onto a winner with this game, because I'm tired of titles that disappoint. But The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is shocking at times. The gameplay is flat and repetitive, the stealth poorly implemented, the narrative dull, the progression nonexistent, the character models ugly, the bugs plentiful, the list goes on. This is a game that feels like it belongs in the 2000s with how its super linear design and limited gameplay mechanics work in practice. Someone should cast it back into the fires of Mt. Doom from whence it came.