An air of mystery has surrounded Lord of the Rings: Gollum ever since it was announced by Daedalic back in March 2019. The studio has outlined its grand vision for the game, to tell the story of the destruction of the One Ring from the perspective of Gollum, rather than the Fellowship. But now, finally, I get to see the game in action, and a sense of how it might actually play. Alas, it's a hands-off demo, and the developer playing it says the build is ten months old. So I'm not getting a totally accurate picture of what the finished game will be like when it's released in 2022—or even what state it's in right now. But hey, it's something.
Gollum has been imprisoned in Barad-dûr, the colossal tower built by Sauron in the fiery heart of Mordor. The Dark Lord's stronghold looks massive from the perspective of the diminutive former Hobbit. Luckily we're playing as an expert climber. The developer controlling the demo notes that Gollum has been clambering around Middle-earth for around 500 years, and has developed superhuman strength and climbing skills as a result. He can run on walls, swing on poles, slide down cliffs, and crawl up certain surfaces. He may be a wretched monster tormented by the power of the One Ring, but he's very nimble.
In the build I'm shown, Gollum's animations are in pretty rough shape. I watch him scramble around Barad-dûr, and it feels very... placeholder. There are no smooth transitions between his various states—running, climbing, swinging, and so on—which makes it look very stiff and robotic. And there's something distractingly weightless about the way he moves, as if he's not fully connected to the environment. Hopefully, this will be improved before release, because navigating this massive, cavernous level looks, otherwise, pretty fun.
Gollum is trying to reach the immense gate that leads out of the tower. There's no map screen or minimap in the game, so you have to pay close attention to the environment to find a way there. At one point Gollum acquires a hand-drawn map scribbled by an orc, but as you might expect, it's not that easy to read. The scale and detail of the tower is really impressive. It's all jagged obsidian spires and snaking rivers of bubbling lava, which is exactly the kind of interior decoration you'd expect from an edgelord like Sauron.
Daedalic says its approach to level design in the game will give players a lot of freedom. There will, apparently, be multiple ways to get through an area, which I get a sense of as I see Gollum picking a route through Barad-dûr. Studying the environment and looking for paths in the architecture is a way of avoiding heavily guarded areas; or you can risk sneaking through the hordes of orcs if you like to live dangerously. I love the idea of the environments in this game being like big navigation puzzles. Let's just hope they sort that animation out.
Gollum is not a fighter, meaning stealth plays a prominent role in the game. Another of his abilities, honed by spending years lurking in the dark and gloomy places of Middle-earth, is having a keen sense of hearing—especially in the dark. This wasn't implemented in the demo I saw, but in the finished game you'll apparently be able to see sounds, helping you sniff out enemies and predict their movements. If you manage to isolate a lone orc, Gollum can knock them out—but this takes a long time and generates a lot of noise.
One of the most interesting things about Gollum is the raging internal battle between his current self and Sméagol, the Hobbit he used to be before the Ring polluted his mind. At certain points in the game you're forced to make a choice, deciding whether to react to something as the bitter, duplicitous Gollum, or the meek, kindly Sméagol. In this build, this appears to involve some kind of reaction-based minigame; seemingly a way of evoking the struggle in Gollum's mind. But apparently, this is being changed for the final game, so who knows how it'll work. It's a neat idea, though.
If Gollum can't achieve something on his own, he might be able to with the help of another character. While exploring Barad-dûr, Gollum befriends a fellow prisoner, Grashneg. Get him on your side and he can smash through barriers, opening up new routes through the level. As far as I know, Grashneg is not an established Lord of the Rings character, so it seems Daedalic is looking to make its own mark on the fiction. This is understandable, but I would like, at some point, to have a run-in with familiar characters along the way. To what degree this story will cross over with the books remains to be seen.
Incidentally, that's an important distinction: this game is based on the books, not the Peter Jackson movies. As a fan of the films, I admit I struggled with the game's version of the character not sounding like Andy Serkis or looking like his cinematic counterpart. That's gonna take some getting used to. But Daedalic has promised that it will remain faithful to the source material, which means we might not see anything as egregious as Shadow of War's sexy Shelob here. Lord of the Rings: Gollum is out in 2022, and while I now feel like I have a better sense of what kind of game it's trying to be, I'm still not sure how it's going to turn out.