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The Lord of the Rings Gollum: Hands On With Daedelic's Stealth Adventure

Joseph Bradford Updated: Posted:
Previews The RPG Files 0

Slinking around as Gollum, staying out of sight from those nasty Orcses is an experience I wasn’t sure I’d ever have in a video game. I’ve played plenty of stealth games out there, from Thief to Metal Gear Solid, all of them reminding me just how terrible I am at the genre.

Yet The Lord of the Rings: Gollum might be the game that actually makes me want to “get good” at the genre. Playing with fantasy’s original Stinker, Gollum might feel like an odd choice for the lead in a video game. Indeed, in a setting like The Lord of the Rings where you have powerful figures like Gandalf the White, Aragorn, Boromir, and much more, choosing Gollum to headline your game takes a certain amount of courage, I think.

It’s not a natural choice of a protagonist, but in the context of the game that German studio Daedalic is making, it’s the perfect one.

Exploring Middle-earth from shadows

It’s a new perspective on the world of Middle-earth, literally. Gollum moves with his typical slinking, crawling style, bending around corners, slithering over rock, and more as if it were as smooth as a wooden floor. But it’s not just his proximity to the ground that changes the perspective of the story. This is one told through Gollum’s eyes, as he sees the world and the people around him. 

This was most starkly shown in a recent press preview that gave us the first chance to go hands-on with The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. The adventure, which is story-driven and inspired by the events of the books during the years leading up to the War of the Ring, Gollum is captured by Gandalf and brought to the Elves of Mirkwood for safekeeping. The beginning of Gollum plays out with Gandalf interrogating Gollum, though when the game introduces the Grey Pilgrim, he’s simply called “Wizard.” Gollum has no sense of who he actually is, just that he’s a Wizard.

This carries over to the Elves themselves, where Gollum sees some of them as “nasty” while others who are kinder to the creature aren’t viewed in the same light. It’s a small touch, but one that brings more presence to the stealth action adventure, as it more firmly puts the perspective behind Gollum's large, luminescent eyes.

The story begins as Gollum is recounting to Gandalf what has happened to the creature since he left the Misty Mountains. Having been captured by Sauron himself, the scene plays out like a flashback, with Gollum telling the Wizard about his escape from the land of Mordor.

It fits the description given during The Council of Elrond, where Gollum was “loth to speak and his tale was unclear,” the voice over of the two characters clearly showed the Wizard growing frustrated with Gollum over his retelling. I was immediately transported to that part in the book where Gandalf describes this conversation, as it was unfolding while I was playing as Gollum for the first time.

The scene sees Gollum looking to escape from Mordor via Cirith Ungol, the place where Frodo and Sam encounter the giant Spider, Shelob. It starts to teach the basics of what players will do for the most part in The Lord of the Rings: Gollum. You’ll jump, climb, and leap across gaps - it’s standard parkour fare that we’ve seen in many games in the genre. 

Part of the tutorial had me climbing over the rocky crags of Cirith Ungol, the task is to escape the Black Land. However, an encounter with the Crebain that so often spoils the plans of LotR protagonists turns into a chase to keep the crow from spying on Gollum as he escapes. The pass was dark, foreboding, and definitely screamed of a place I’m not sure I would want to visit on vacation any time soon. 

Visually, Gollum can impress. I felt like I was trapped there in Mordor, the walls of the various passes closing in around me. It’s grimy, gloomy, and everywhere felt rife with danger, which after a while in the demo presented itself very clearly. 

Sticking To The Shadows

Gollum is not a fighter. While the books have Gollum taking out the occasional unsuspecting Orc for dinner if they strayed too close to his hiding spot, he would typically only do so when under the spell of The One Ring. 

As such, without the protection afforded by the Ring’s power, Gollum is largely defenseless. This plays into the stealth fantasy very well: You simply can’t brute force your way through packs of Orcs (or Elves in later levels), instead needing to think things through because being spotted might mean starting over.

You can stealthily take down the occasional orc, but by and large the tactic is usually to watch, and wait. This feels reminiscent of Gollum’s tactic when following The Fellowship as he tracked the Ring after it left Rivendell. He kept his distance until he felt confident he could strike the two Hobbits in the Emyn Muil. 

Lotr Gollum Mirkwood

The Lord of the Rings Gollum sees a similar scenario playout. More often than not during my playtest, it was better to stop and watch. Sometimes the only tactic was to just run past the Orc patrol as fast as I could, hiding again somewhere in the distance once I was clear of danger. Another time saw me watching the pathing of the AI, waiting for the perfect time to move. It’s not a new mechanic in the genre, but it’s used to great effect here. 

As such, I felt like every step I would take around an enemy could be my last. I’m bad at stealth games to begin with, so that surely didn’t help, either.

This was compounded with new challenges when, later in the demo, I found myself slinking around the stronghold of Thranduil and the Mirkwood Elves. Here, water entered the equation, as using it as a way to go around a situation was the way to go. Even going underwater and swimming (Gollum is “too clever a water-man,” movie Aragorn might say) is a way to stay hidden, though I did find the fact that I would need to resurface without knowing whether that would trigger an Elven sentry when I was out. a smidge concerning each time, not knowing what danger I might pop out into.

To help mitigate these issues, sense danger and see a clear path forward, Gollum has his own version of Witcher Sense, effectively Gollum Sense. Gollum’s senses are heightened thanks to his holding of the One Ring for so long, so he’s just able to hear better, see better in the dark, and much more (much like Frodo could upon wearing The One Ring and being stabbed by the Morgul Blade). 

Two Side Of The Same Coin

The Lord of the Rings Gollum is, at its core, a story-driven game. It’s told through the eyes of Gollum, as he sees the world, and also tackles some of the issues he might face within his own mind as well.

We touched on this in our preview last May, but Gollum will find himself faced with choices where it will trigger a battle in his mind for control between Gollum and Smeagol. Effectively, one will have to convince the other why their choice is best, and the more these choices are offered, the more one side might start coming out on top versus the other. 

Lotr Gollum Smeagol decisions

These choices aren’t simply cosmetic or something that affects only Gollum’s mind. They can determine dialogue choices with other NPCs, affect how they might respond to you, and more. It’s a cool way to portray this unique facet of Gollum’s character, the split personality that helps define him in Tolkien’s Legendarium. 

Smeagol and Gollum are interdependent in a way that makes siding with one or the other all the time impossible. There might be times when siding with Gollum is going to help you the most, even if it means possibly doing something nasty in the process. Meanwhile, siding with Smeagol might win you over to an NPC that you need to keep you alive, especially if that NPC is as powerful as one of the Dark Lord’s henchmen, the Inqusitor (also known by the Orcs as the Candle Man).

It’s not a simple morality system as a result. You’re going to have to do some bad things to survive as Gollum in this world. As a creature who is morally, let’s just say, grey, the way you approach each situation is going to reflect not simply a “good” or “bad” path, but the one most able to keep you alive longer. 

This was felt fully when I was presented to the Candle Man who interrogated us on the fate of a character we might of had a hand in their demise. This was right after the Candle Man had an interesting conversation with another of Sauron's lieutenants, the Mouth of Sauron himself - a conversation that didn't seem to end on a good note as well. The Inquisitor himself is a subordinate of the Mouth, acting as his eyes and ears throughout Middle-earth. This interrogation of Smeagol is just another way to gather the information the Mouth requires.

LotR Gollum Mouth of Sauron

Remembering the Crebain spies, Smeagol was loth to lie, and the task was to convince Gollum that survival would be better served by telling the truth. It was especially effective in reminding Gollum that he might already know about the situation thanks to the spies, and I loved how Daedelic showed this conversation play out in the demo. It was so reminiscent of the various conversations we saw Gollum/Smeagol have with himself during those iconic scenes in the movies. 

It’s such a great example too of why Gollum is more nuanced than just the Stinker Samwise saw him as. He’s not really evil, but he’s not really good either. He’s a tragic figure whose own psyche hates itself for the means it’s had to use to survive, but can’t survive without him now (“We survived because of ME!” Gollum reminds Smeagol in the movies, afterall). 

Adapting (and filling in) the lore

One of the challenges facing anything adapting The Lord of the Rings is the lore question, especially for us purists who don’t really want changes. But what do you do when there is blank space in the lore itself? This is the challenge (and the adventure) the Daedelic studio finds itself overcoming. 

While we know of the journey Gollum goes through in the story, such as escaping from Mordor, tracking down the Fellowship, and ultimately playing a role in the Ring’s destruction, we don’t know exactly what he encountered and overcame along the way. 

We also don't quite know who he encountered as well, and the way Daedelic has chosen to depict not just the Orcs and fell creatures of Mordor, but also the Men who might still be thrall to Sauron's will, matters here. It's an interesting look into the society that is built up around Mordor itself, a society that had to have existed even if the books don't quite go into detail since they are told from the perspective of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.

Candle Man LotR Gollum

The Inquisitor is an intriguing creation and addition to this story, being one of Sauron's most trusted agents, but also being of the race of Mortal Men. Is he a descendant of Numenor, and those folk who followed Sauron during the Second Age? Does he hail from Harad, Umbar, or has he always grown up in Mordor? His daughter, who is mentioned by the Mouth of Sauron in a not-so-subtle threat to the Candleman, grew up in the Dark Tower - how does that change a person and do they ever know anything other than the teachings of the Sauron himself?

Setting the story eight years before the events of The Lord of the Rings gives the Daedelic team plenty of space to work with, thankfully. One of the benefits of adapting something like The Lord of the Rings is just how detailed Tolkien himself was. So while we don’t know exactly what happened in Mirkwood while Gollum was there, we do know how he escaped.

We know the Elves pitied him (or in this case, Gandalf instructs the Elves to let him out of his cell) and let him come outside to climb a tree where he liked to feel the wind on his face. But what did Gollum’s adventures look like in Mirkwood? Did he befriend any elves there? Were Thranduil’s folk kind, indifferent, mean to the creature? Daedelic can answer some of these questions in the confines of its story.

The same goes for Gollum’s escape? Why was he let free from the clutches of Sauron? Who did he encounter? What secret deals did he make and with whom for his life? How did he come to have a relationship with Shelob, one that allows Gollum to use that knowledge to lead the Hobbits there years later?

There is so much room to play with here, and it helps that Daedelic is also interested in making sure it’s as close to the vision Tolkien might have had as possible. Working with Tolkien experts (and hiring their own in Tilman Shanen to help write the story), a lot of research has been done to ensure that it’s “lore friendly.” 

The other challenge, though, aside from filling in these gaps, is showing off the world in a way that we might not have seen before. While the cultural view of what Middle-earth looks like is through the cinematic lens defined by Peter Jackson, Daedelic has the challenge of creating a vision of Middle-earth that is more closely aligned with the descriptions in the books (not that Jackson’s depiction wasn’t using those detailed descriptions either, though). 

As such, familiar faces might look different as Daedelic is putting its own flair on its take of what Middle-earth looks like. This is most acutely seen in Thranduil’s garb, as well as the Mouth of Sauron, the latter a pale, malformed human with a giant mouth as the hood of his cloak. He looks strikingly different than the giant mouth with no eyes we saw in The Return of the King. The descriptions follow more closely with the books, and shy away from being directly taken from the movie inspirations, despite Gollum’s look being so close to what we know from the movie trilogies. 

The environments themselves look great, though, and I felt fully transported into these places, especially the Dark Lord's tower. Seeing large paintings of the Dark Lord's triumph over the Numenoreans, the dark, forboding, spiraling staircase that winds ever upwards into the abyss of Sauron's hold gave me chills - as well as a large smile across my face.

Daedelic's vision of Middle-earth and its locations has a definite sense of place that really feels distinct. Mirkwood also felt like it lept of the pages of Tolkien's work, with the darker tones of Thranduil's folk coming into view alongside the lush, green boughs of the Greenwood alongside. The elves themselves didn't feel like the fairy folk they are typically depicted as in most Lord of the Rings media, instead they feel perfectly at home in the darker, but still mystical and ethereal home of the Firstborn in Middle-earth.

The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is poised to be an interesting take on the world Tolkien created. Seeing it through Gollum’s eyes presents new challenges and advantages for legendarium, and is a fresh look at a game set in a world that dominates fantasy. While my playthrough started to feel a little stale as I played disparate segments of the game, with the stealth and parkour feeling a bit too slow at times, I was always eager to see what was coming next. What location would I be able to explore, who would I encounter, and more. 

There are a ton of Easter eggs to find, especially in the Mirkwood chapter, that should delight hardcore fans of the world (I was surprised by the many Silmarillion Easter eggs I found while slinking around Thranduil’s halls). And I think that was a major concern that this demo erased for me when my hour was up: was it going to feel plenty Tolkienian, or was it going to feel like something that is just taking advantage of a valuable IP? And I'm happy to say that it's easy to tell the love the developers have for the works the Professor wrote in every scene. 

It’ll be great to finally go hands-on and see the whole vision from the Daedelic team when The Lord of the Rings: Gollum releases on May 25th.


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore