If you were to most Lord of the Rings fans who they would want a game built around, I think you'd have to go pretty far before you get past the bombastic names of Arda's history. Gil-Galad, Elendil, Feanor, Turin - all bombastic names that could be pretty compelling main characters in their own right.
However, Daedalic is taking one of the most iconic characters from JRR Tolkien's universe and crafting a game around him in a way that makes total sense: Gollum as the star of a sneaky stealth game.
I'll be honest: I'm garbage at stealth titles. Ask anyone who has seen me attempt to play Metal Gear Solid or Thief and you'll learn quickly that I'm not that great. But The Lord of the Rings: Gollum looks like a title I could get into and be pretty decent at playing.
To set the stage, Gollum takes place about eight years before the War of the Ring, the climactic struggle between the Free People's of Middle-earth and Sauron as depicted in the movies and the main book trilogy. In the time between Bilbo leaving the Shire and Frodo finally setting off for Rivendell, years pass. Gollum has been wandering, searching for his Precious, and in doing so gets captured by Sauron. They tortured him, getting him to reveal the location of the Ringbearer. After escaping the Dark Lord, Aragorn captures Gollum and brings him to Gandalf to be interrogated.
LotR: Gollum plays with this idea, giving the players the chance to play through that interrogation. You'll hear conversation points between the Wizard Gandalf and Gollum himself as you play through the levels. It's a pretty cool juxtaposition that I think largely works - and it grounds the story in the books themselves as well.
We got to see two levels in our playthrough: Cirith Ungol and the Thranduil's Mirkwood. One thing is clear, though: while the books might be the major source for the title, visually Lord of the Rings: Gollum feels rooted in the look and soundscape of the Jackson films. This isn't necessarily a bad thing on a surface level: places such as the grimy, dim, and blackened Mordor are distinct, while the beautiful, yet ancient realm of Mirkwood looked stunning as Gollum slinked around Thranduil's palace. Yet, the illusion breaks with its main character himself: Gollum.
The team at Daedelic is clearly going for the way Andy Serkis performed the role in the movies, and while the actor does a pretty good job of imitating Serkis, it's not a great illusion. The look of Gollum is also very much reminiscent of the Jackson films, though I could not stop wondering why they put a full head of black hair on the creature - it just looked completely out of place, and out of character for a creature that has spent 500 years underground surviving on what likely isn't full of hair-maintaining Biotin.
While the illusion of the Serkis-esque Gollum is initially distracting, Daedalic is crafting a game that completely fits what Gollum does best, and could eventually save the day here for the action-adventure platformer: stealth.
Gollum is, at its core, a stealth platformer. You'll spend much of your time climbing walls, slinking past guards from one grass patch to the next, and platforming from ledges high above the action. Gollum, as Tolkien describes him, does not like confrontation. He spent hundreds of years donning the Ring in order to stealthily capture his prey, be it orc, fish or whatnot, so it would make sense that, even Ringless, his approach wouldn't change too much.
This doesn't mean that you won't need to confront an enemy every now and then. In the Cirith Ungol section, we saw two approaches to overcoming enemies. One had Gollum throw a rock at the environment, a lantern in this case, which startles the Orc so much he falls into the depths of Shelob's lair.
Gollum can also sneak up on his enemies and subdue them from behind, doing a quintessential video-game stealth take-down. However, whether you'll be able to complete the job is dependent on your stamina gauge, so it's not a guarantee if you approach an enemy this way. The way Daedalic described it in a brief Q&A afterward, Gollum really isn't one to approach combat first unless pushed into a corner. The best course of action is to engage only when the last resort, and instead use what Gollum does best: climb and sneak.
Stamina places a role here too, with Gollum using stamina when hanging and parkouring around the environment. But Gollum is at his best when he's lurking in the shadows, watching and waiting for his move.
As far as abilities, Daedalic states that players will have access to everything Gollum knows up to this point in his life. At the time Lord of the Rings Gollum takes place, the creature has survived underground for a couple of centuries, learning and building up his skillset to survive. It would make no sense to strip him of those abilities now just for a game - which on some level I really appreciate. I do wonder, though, whether or not the fact that there is no skill-based progression or real way to gauge that you are getting stronger as you progress will put some players off.
One area where you might feel progression is the way the two split personalities of Gollum argue. Points will arise where you'll be dealing with the duality of Gollum's existence: the hardened, cruel Gollum with the kinder, softer Smeagol. The two will argue and talk as you play the game, much like you see in other games where the main character will just sort of talk out loud, providing information for the player to jump on.
However, other scenes will show the two locked in an argument where your decisions, whether you want to lean more into Smeagol's personality or Gollum's, will make a difference. Choices here can have larger consequences, which can impact the story beats down the road, while other moments where the two personalities are locked in conversation are just for flavor and roleplaying purposes. However, while it feels like just another variation of the good and evil mechanics found in other titles, from a story and world perspective it fits.
That's kind of my large takeaway from the twenty-minute long presentation, as well: nothing feels transformative new. There isn't a mechanic that Gollum is providing that doesn't feel like it has its roots in another stealth platformer or even an RPG game that has come before this. Much of what I saw looked like games I had already played, from the platforming found in Uncharted and Tomb Raider to the bog-standard stealth mechanics introduced in titles going as far back as Thief. This isn't bad perse, but it does leave a lot to be desired if that's the case.
One of the major draws of a Lord of the Rings title as well is how you impact a world where you know, without a shadow of a doubt, you're not the main character. Instead, will you brush up against the main characters in your own personal quest? The answer is one we've already alluded to, and one we can definitively say "yes." Players will see and, in a way, interact with the main characters throughout Gollum's journey. Thranduil, with his woodland crown adorning his head, was seen walking through his palace with Gandalf towards the end of our preview, and we've already seen Shelob take an Orc out to lunch during the Cirith Ungol sequence. Will we meet other characters, such as Aragorn himself, or even Legolas, son of Thranduil? Who knows, but it'll be interesting to see how many cameos we get of iconic characters in Gollum.
My main concern about any Lord of the Rings game, though, is how well it represents the source material itself. Since Gollum is clearly based on the books and his escapades during the eight years before the War of the Ring kicks off, how is Gollum's journey represented? How much deviation from Tolkien's work will we see? One thing that concerns me was during our Q&A, when the subject of how involved the official Tolkien Estate was, the question was seemingly brushed off as the license is through Middle-earth Enterprises, a completely separate entity that controls the media rights. While it's clear the developers are trying to stay as true to the source material as possible, how much creative liberty will be taken since the Estate doesn't seem involved in order to safeguard Tolkien's work?
Thankfully, so far the team at Daedalic seems as concerned about representing Tolkien's work as I would be, and the game decisions the team has made feel perfectly at home in a game where the author's sneakiest character is its lead. It's also interesting: Gollum is definitely made to be a villain (as Sam calls him), but the words of Gandalf come floating back to me as I think more and more about whether or not Gollum was a good choice for a game: he's also one to be pitied.
How much will Daedalic explore this side of Gollum? Will we get to a point where we look past the nasty things Gollum has had to do to survive, or even simply under the thralldom of the Ring, and see the pitiable creature that stayed Bilbo's hand? How Daedalic chooses to explore this is unclear, but it'll keep me interested as Gollum is set to release later this year on September 1st.