Daedalic Entertainment’s The Lords of the Rings: Gollum didn’t look good when it was first revealed, with its entire concept failing to excite thanks to a confusing take on the character and yet another game in this franchise bound to the smouldering grey dunes of Mordor. We held out hope regardless that this puzzle platformer would somehow deliver on its ideas.
It didn’t. Gollum fumbles into the flames of Mount Doom kicking and screaming all the while with its awful gameplay mechanics, horrendous visuals, and design decisions so ridiculous I can’t quite believe it got released in the first place. Exactly how did this thing even happen?
Chances are it survived on the appeal of its license alone. The Lords of the Rings will always be a big deal, and on the surface a stealth-focused puzzle game set during Gollum’s captivity makes plenty of sense. He can’t fight, is weak and vulnerable, and also has to deal with a split personality which in the right hands could have resulted in some excellent gameplay scenarios. Except it doesn’t, and Daedalic seems to have fumbled the ball in every conceivable way. I never had faith in it being a critical darling, and prayed for something average, but to see it obliterated by fans and critics alike has been morbidly satisfying. Failures like this don’t happen much.
Well, they do, but half-formulated ideas and potential duds like this often don’t see the light of day, doomed to the prototype stage or inevitable cancelations to save face or cut losses before things reach a certain point. I’ve seen developers often say online that every game is a miracle, and in spite of its mediocrity we should still pay Gollum our respects due to the creators who pieced it together trying their very best. I understand the blood, sweat, and tears required to make games possible, but are you seriously telling me nobody looked at this thing and didn’t think it looked a bit rubbish? The awful platforming, dire companion system, and visuals that wouldn’t look out of place in a budget PS3 game didn’t give off bad vibes? Come on now...
Games are too expensive and risky to make in the modern era that licensed stinkers like Gollum are either doomed to obscurity or are never made to begin with. If they are, studio pedigree and brand recognition come together in service of games we know are going to be excellent. I’ll admit that Marvel’s Avengers is an exception to that rule, but it’s also the straw responsible for breaking the superhero camel’s back when it came to what titles we want and where all these studios and publishers should be investing their millions in resources. Gollum stands as a bizarre outlier, some sort of fantastical dud that somehow lumbered through production and landed at the finish line with a confidence it doesn’t earn in the slightest.
The Lord of the Rings deserves better too, and I say that as a fan in the loosest sense. Our reviewer Ben Sledge lives and breathes the works of Tolkien, and even his review struggled to conjure up any semblance of joy, and he was being charitable with his 1.5/5 score. Gollum misunderstands everything about its main character and the universe he resides in, wrought with visuals and mechanics that feel placeholder in their execution despite representing the finished product. It’s falling apart at the seams in such a way that I can’t wait for an inevitable post-mortem that looks at precisely what went wrong, and if years ago Gollum was
destined to be something much better. How did this even make it out of the door? And why do I care?
I think it comes down to video game critique dealing with two extremes. Games are either untouchable masterpieces or beautiful disasters. Those that fall in between either grow into cult classics or are forgotten entirely, doomed to be labelled as underrated or nothing at all. When something is bad, and not merely passable, we relish in figuring out why or sharing its biggest offences online for all to see. Nobody I know is playing Gollum, but everyone loves to share awful screenshots online or comically positioned character models, animations, and dialogue that serve to show how busted the whole thing really is.
There’s a spiteful joy to be found in this, and games of this calibre are so few and far between these days that of course we’ve made it a hot button topic of discussion. Part of me feels cynical for joining in with the jokes, but is aware that if we want the medium to advance and stop clinging to awful dregs like Gollum, we need to point them out with critique both brash and constructive.