A couple of weeks ago, I saw 20 minutes of The Lord of the Rings: Gollum gameplay. It was quite different from the reveal trailer we got a week later, which is… safe, to say the least. Personally I think it would have been better to just release the full section we were shown, which focused on Gollum escaping Barad-dur – Sauron’s main fortress in Mordor – purely because any Tolkien fan worth their salt from The Shire would immediately recognize how promising it looks. But hey, I don’t make the games, I just write about them.
This was a point that was specifically hammered home by the dev who guided us through the gameplay demo – that Gollum was going to be “faithful to the work of Tolkien.” As someone with Tolkien tattoos and a first edition of The Lord of the Rings worth significantly more money than my laptop, I can confidently say that this wasn’t just a string of marketing buzzwords. If the rest of the game is like what I saw two weeks ago, Daedalic has managed to adapt the work of The Professor with real finesse.
There are some pretty good Lord of the Rings games out there. I always refer back to EA Redwood Shores’ 2003 adaptation of The Return of the King, which strangely holds up pretty well – it’s just a straight adaptation of the final instalment in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, though. Shadow of Mordor is excellent, too, although it takes established lore and says, “You know what? Nope.” Shadow of War is much less excellent. Yep.
What I mean is, the original adaptations of the film trilogy were faithful to Jackson more so than Tolkien. Which is fine! Jackson fundamentally understood every single element of what makes the books so special, aside from turning Boromir into a right prick – I’ll never get over how dirty Sean Bean was done in Jackson’s Fellowship, and I’ll sneak in a reference to it every place it makes sense to. And the best Lord of the Rings games aside from those Jackson adaptations are only vaguely inspired by Tolkien’s world as opposed to being faithful to it. Talion is just The Hobbit’s Tauriel, except loads worse.
Anyway! Back to the matter at hand: Gollum. Daedalic showed us the entire Barad-dur escape, which is something that actually happens in the legendarium. It didn’t go into too much detail, so I’m not sure if the reasoning behind said escape is correct – in The Book of Lost Tales, it’s revealed that Sauron consciously engineered Gollum’s prison break while allowing the pathetic creature to believe he’d mustered up the means for it all by himself. But looking at Barad-dur gives me reason to believe that Daedalic won’t ignore this or anything else. The battlements and buttresses are a work of art not too dissimilar from what you might expect from illustrious Tolkienian illustrators like Ted Nasmith or the historically revered Alan Lee.
I already wrote a lengthy piece on the layout of Barad-dur, specifically talking about how the verticality is incredibly exciting for a lifelong Tolkien fan. From a design perspective, it makes sense – the map looks like early Assassin’s Creed, in that it stretches up instead of out, which enables clever use of Gollum’s unique mobility. Remember this is a creature who can swim, spring, scale, and skulk with four almost equally powerful limbs, so the environments need to be pretty responsive.
I also discussed the game’s choice mechanic, which separates Smeagol and Gollum into two distinct avenues – do you hide from the orc, or cave its head in with a particularly sharp rock? You can’t go full Paragon or Renegade here either – both identities are necessary for proper progression.
When you take all of this and consider it as a cohesive whole, it becomes pretty clear that even 20 minutes of footage is enough to see how much the devs understand the source material. It’s not just another adaptation of Jackson, nor is it trying to write non-Tolkienian words into the Middle-earth legendarium. It’s something that has a deep respect for The Professor’s work and wants to bring it to a new audience in a fresh way. It also explores Gollum, one of the most fascinating characters in Tolkien’s entire oeuvre. Sure, he might not seem like much of a protagonist if you’ve only watched the films, but there’s a lot more to this weird malnourished demon hobbit than meets the eye. I’m particularly excited to see more Smeagol, right after the Barad-dur escape and way prior to meeting Frodo and Sam. He hasn’t been separated from the ring for as long at this point and he’s just had the living daylights knocked out of him for an eternity – that makes for a uniquely potent mix of fear and ruthlessness that we probably don’t see elsewhere in the trilogy.
So when Daedalic says it’s being “faithful to the work of Tolkien” – well, I’ve got no reason to give that statement pause. What I saw was obviously tailored-to-press, a snippet designed to showcase some of the game’s core features – how the environments look, how Gollum moves, what enemies operate like. But it was also a ten-month-old build showcased more than a full year away from launch. It was rough around the edges – Gollum had insect eyes and weird hair – but it was true to the source material. Barad-dur was just as terrifyingly imposing as it should be, and the vast lands of Mordor surrounding it were fiery and desolate.
We also know we’ll see Gollum eventually escape Mordor and arrive at the Land of the Elves, but I’m pretty confident the devs will pull that off as well. If Mordor is this magnificently grim, I’m sure Mirkwood could boast a kind of grim magnificence. Gollum is so clearly invested in honouring what it’s based on that I can’t see a world in which it doesn’t appeal to Tolkien fans. Sure, it might be hard to get more casually interested people on board for a game where you play as a little runt who can’t fight for shit – except actually, he can – but anyone with even the slimmest curiosity for the world of Middle-earth should love what this game has to offer, provided the demo is in any shape or form indicative of the finished product. Believe me, this is coming from someone who’s currently got their laptop propped up by a Tolkien encyclopedia – Gollum looks like it’s going to be the most faithful Tolkien video game adaptation yet.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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