Lord of the Rings: Gollum

Two rants in a row. Fortunately, the next few blogs posts I’ve planned are more positive.

My reaction to Lord of the Rings: Gollum is so negative that I’m not going to include a spoiler warning. That’s because I badly want to spoil the game for you, so that you feel no need to purchase it. Please feel free to blame me for helping you avoid an unpleasant gaming experience.

Now that you know how I feel…

I don’t think it’s enough to say “I think this is a bad game.” I want to express why. That allows you to judge whether I’m being too harsh with my opinions. Perhaps, for you, this will be the best Lord of the Rings video game since War for the North (another video game I didn’t like).

I have three main problems with this game: the visuals, the story, and gameplay. (What else is there? Well, the voice acting and the sound design, I guess; those are fine.)

The visual palette of the game is generally drab and dark. Since it starts off in Mordor, it’s reasonable to ask if I expected anything else. But even after the game gets out of Mordor and into Mirkwood, the game looks dull. The graphics are about on par with games released more than a decade ago. That wouldn’t necessarily be a down-check for me (see the last paragraph of this post), but it adds to the problems I have with the game.

To understand what I feel is wrong with the story, I’m going off not on just one wild tangent, but two:

We all know how the arc of the events of WWII turned out. Even with that knowledge, there are still many stories you can tell about the conflict. There were successes in the midst of failures, and vice versa. The events took place in wide-ranging environments, from the Pacific Ocean to the deserts of Africa to the bitter cold of Russia to the burning cities of Europe. While the overall saga of WWII is known, as viewers (or game-players) we don’t necessarily know how a given story set within that arc will turn out.

Because the theater of operations was so large and complex, even a story set in a battle whose outcome is known (like the Normandy invasion) is still interesting to watch.

One curious thing about WWII: It wasn’t resolved by Eisenhower and Hitler fighting each other in a rifle duel.

That weird sentence slides into tangent number two: Star Wars. For all the talk of Trade Federations and whatnot, anyone with any familiarity with the story knows that the saga is decided in a lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the Emperor’s Throne Room on the Death Star. Pretty much everything external to that duel can seem pointless.

That’s the reason that, for many years, I ignored the Star Wars animated series. It wasn’t because they were animated. It was because I thought that any story they told would be meaningless. We know the fates of all the characters in the Star Wars saga. Let’s say there was once a big battle on Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyk. OK, but we know what Chewbacca did, how his character developed (it didn’t), and whether he ever got a medal.

What I didn’t know then is that Dave Filoni, the mastermind behind most of the Star Wars animated series, found a way around that. He did what you do when telling a story set in WWII: You introduce new characters whose individual stories you don’t already know, and whose outcomes are not certain. We now have series like Andor, The Bad Batch, and Ahsoka. Within the scope of each series, the story arcs of the characters and how they fit into the overall saga become interesting.

Now we come to Lord of the Rings: Gollum. The central character is Gollum (or Sméagol, depending on his mood). The story is set in the interval of time between Gollum’s travel to Morder in search of the Ring taken by Bilbo to his wait by the western door inside of the Mines of Moria.

Tolkien wrote what happened to Gollum during that time, both in The Fellowship of the Ring and in the appendices in Return of the King. There’s not much room for story there. According to Tolkien, Gollum/Sméagol doesn’t have a character arc during that time. LotRG doesn’t try to give him one. He’s pretty much what you’ve seen in both the books and the movies.

Lord of the Rings gives a very tight story constraint on the character of Gollum and the role he plays in the War of the Ring. What can you do within that constraint? You can do what Dave Filoni did, and introduce characters that you care about, whose fate can be uncertain and for whom your game-play decisions might have some impact.

LotRG has two problems here.

First, you never learn the fate or backstory of any of the characters you might care about. Who was the Frail Man? Who was the Candle Man? There are hints that these characters had interesting histories, but they’re never revealed. Every new character introduced in LotRG is a cipher: an unknown past, unknown motives, unknown destiny.

I suppose this is realistic. But it doesn’t make for interesting storytelling.

The second problem has to do with the game-play decisions you make. There are parts of the game in which Sméagol and Gollum have internal dialogs. You make choices about which course of action they take; for example, betray someone or keep their secret.

Except that no matter what you choose, it doesn’t matter. At one point you decide whether to save someone from Shelob or let her take them. It doesn’t matter; they die anyway.

All paths lead to the west gate of Moria. There’s nothing you can do to change that, not even to change how you get there, nor to make the journey more interesting.

Let’s move on to the gameplay.

LotRG was advertised as a stealth game. I like stealth games. My favorite video game, Horizon: Zero Dawn, is a stealth game for long stretches. I can take my time in a stealth game, look over the environment, plan my actions, and not feel rushed. There was only one pure stealth sequence in LotRG that I had to look up on the web, and that was because I missed that Gollum could hide underneath a table.

But LotRG is also a platformer. If you’ve read my other video-game reviews, you know that I’m bad at platformers.

What’s worse, LotRG is a bad platformer. As you jump to grab a pole or a ledge, it’s not clear whether the game will be forgiving (you snap to the target as you do in the Assassin’s Creed games), or whether your sequence of keypresses has to be precise.

The stealth sequences are also inconsistent with their timing. If you have to follow someone, it’s not clear how far you can get before the game will decide that you fail, or how far away you have to be from an enemy before you’re detected. These sequences essentially become low-level obstacle courses, as you hop/slink/jump through a predetermined pattern in order to get through a sequence.

Then there are the high-level obstacle courses.

There are three extremely painful “high-speed” obstacle challenges in the game: Clinging to the side of a cart as it leaves Mordor, the escape from Shelob, and running through a village infested with Orcs. Those sequences require very quick responses to visual cues, unlike what I’d expect from a “stealth” game.

They made me feel miserable. I got through all of them, but only after consulting the web and watching videos of each obstacle course to learn what the moves were supposed to be. For example, on my own I never would have figured out that the green mold on the cave walls marked the path that Gollum was supposed to take to get away from Shelob.

Now we get to the game’s worst failing: It’s buggy. It will crash or develop other problems. Maybe these problems will be patched, or already have been. As we’ll see, I’ll never know.

The game’s final glitch, as far as I was concerned, occurred at the Star Door puzzle. I figured out the puzzle (with a bit of help from the web) and tried to stick the final gem in the door. I couldn’t do it. The game wouldn’t let me. It was a program bug.

I tried to restart from the last auto-save. The problem was that the auto-save included the glitch. There was no way to solve the puzzle.

I had an option: Restart the game from beginning of the chapter. The problem is that it would mean going through the Orc-village obstacle course again. After the misery it had caused me, I just couldn’t repeat that experience.

I gave up. I watched the rest of the game on YouTube.

If you look at my review of Batman: Arkham Knight, you’ll see that roughly the same thing happened to me in that game: I reached a challenge that some high-speed platforming aspect would not let me pass. I only “completed” the game by watching others play it.

Arkham Knight had an interesting story and visual appeal; Gollum has neither. Hence Lord of the Rings: Gollum now has the dubious honor of being the worst video game I’ve played, ranking below Batman: Arkham Knight.

Lest you think I’m judging this game through too harsh a lens, my next video-game review will about a game based on a widely-known IP, with antique graphics, and even more glitches than Gollum. I loved every minute of it. I’ll get to that review within the next few weeks, I hope.

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