2023 has a new front runner for the worst video game ever, in what proves to be a bad idea, poorly executed.
The moment developer Daedalic announced they were making a Lord of the Rings game based on Gollum it seemed like a flawed concept. Of all the characters to base a game on, playing as the sad, pathetic former Hobbit seemed uniquely unappealing and many fans predicted that it was doomed to failure. They were right, but perhaps not quite for the reasons they imagined.
We would feel sorry for Daedalic, because they’re a small studio – known only for niche point ‘n’ click adventures like Deponia – and this was clearly their long-awaited chance to enter the big leagues. That sympathy quickly dissipates though, when you consider that one of the main problems with the game is that it’s utterly broken on a technical level.
There’s no way Daedalic, or publisher Nacon, didn’t know that when they released it, not least because it’s already been delayed multiple times before. And yet here we are again. Although you could argue that in this case it doesn’t matter so much anyway, because the underlining game is so awful, whether it works properly or not.
It seems certain that J.R.R. Tolkien would not have been a fan of video games, had he ever lived to see them (he died in 1973 but we feel we would’ve heard if he spent his final years addicted to Pong) and we’re sure he would’ve hated the Shadow Of Mordor games in particular, given their loose adherence to his canon. If anyone had ever ended up pitching game ideas to him though we feel this one probably would’ve had a better chance than most, since it’s not really an action game and does try to focus on Gollum’s dissociative identity.
The game is set just before the events of The Fellowship Of The Ring (in which Gollum is only briefly referenced), long after he’s lost the One Ring to Bilbo Baggins and while he’s still in Mordor, initially as a prisoner. As is the defining nature of his character, Gollum’s goals are not complicated and so you spend the whole game simply trying to catch up with Bilbo, to get your precious back.
While the storytelling is the best element of the game, that’s really not a compliment, given this is not a story that needed to be told. You learn nothing new of note about Gollum and while the moments where he’s talking to his alter ego of Sméagol, trying to get him to go along with his plans, are the best parts of the game, they’re let down by The Voice #TheVoice-acting. It’s adequate but it pales in comparison to Andy Serkis, which it was always going to do and should have been reason #231 not to make the game in the first place.
Since Gollum is not an action hero the whole game is based around stealth tactics, as you creep around in the darkness, trying to avoid orcs and others, with even stealth kills being relatively rare. That’s fine, but if stealth is going to be the game’s primary mechanic it really needed to be doing something new or unusual to justify it. Throwing rocks to distract guards definitely doesn’t count and while Gollum is a good climber even that is never used to any interesting effect.
Orcs, who as far as we understand are supposed to prefer being in the dark, can’t see you even if you’re inches from their face, just as long as you’re standing in shadow. Their goldfish memories are to be expected but the AI manages to make them seem even more dumb than usual by having them notice lights going out, because you wanted to create cover for yourself, investigating them and then doing nothing about it.
Likewise, the climbing mechanics offer absolutely no freedom of movement or chance for exploration, as you merely follow the only path you can move along. That’s not too dissimilar to other games, that use platforming and climbing as a palette cleanser, but here it’s one of the only proper mechanics and it needed to be a lot more involved than just creeping along the only route you can travel.
This is especially true as Gollum can seriously injure himself by falling what looks like only a couple of feet, while his stamina is on par with a 40-a-day smoker, as you’re constantly left to sit around waiting for the meter to fill up again. The gameplay starts from a position of inane simplicity and then goes out of its way to make the few mechanics it does possess as frustrating as possible.
This is the sort of game that makes Cyberpunk 2077 look like Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom, in terms of the amount of bugs, but it’s important to note that even if it worked perfectly it would still be awful. If you’re getting tired of endless open world games then Gollum will quickly make you think twice, as it’s so preposterously linear, with such inanely simplistic mission objectives, it begins to make you question whether it even counts as a game at all.
All you’re ever doing is going from one checkpoint to the next, the objectives never being any more complicated or interesting than collecting an item or following a character. There’s still a possibility that could have been interesting if it created a sense of constant motion and anticipation but, particularly in the first half of the game, you keep end up coming back to the same locations.
Locations, we should emphasise, that look like they were created for a mid-budget Xbox 360 game and are so bad in terms of geometry and textures it’s shocking that the game could be considered worthy for release even without the bugs. Gollum does looks considerably better by comparison, although his weird cross-eyed gaze is a constant distraction and just one of dozens of baffling design decisions.
Gollum is a terrible game, released in a terrible state. There’s a full two layers of bugs and glitches, the more mundane ones involving characters getting stuck in scenery or being weirdly out of focus during cut scenes. Music cues often don’t work; characters don’t appear where they should; and a multitude of other scripted events, that you can’t progress with out, regularly fail to happen – forcing you to restart a checkpoint and do it all again until they do.
On top of that is endless crash bugs, which can occur just minutes apart and never for any obvious reason. To say that the game isn’t finished is to understate on an epic scale. Gollum has absolutely no business being released in this state and yet the fact that the publisher thought they could get away with it shows just how poor standards are right now in the games industry.
The fact that you’re not missing out on anything is not the point. We doubt many people were going to buy Gollum anyway, since it seems such an intrinsically unappealing idea, but this is a new low for gaming. Hopefully things have now hit rock bottom, and publishers will finally be shaken into action, but if everything continues as it is, or somehow gets worse, then there is going to have to be some major pushback from gamers.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review summary
In Short: Broken beyond belief but also a fundamentally bad idea for a video game, with inanely shallow and repetitive gameplay – Gollum is not only the worst mainstream game of the year but of the last two generations.
Pros: Gollum’s interactions with Sméagol are the only interesting concept in the whole game, flawed as they are.
Cons: Almost everything, but most obviously the appalling state it’s been released in. Although the bugs only serve to hide a poorly conceived game whose simplistic mechanics and unengaging story would seem feeble even if they worked perfectly.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date: 25th May 2023 (Switch TBA)
Age Rating: 16
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First appear at The Lord of the Rings: Gollum review – the worst video game of the generation