Originally released as an independently made mod for Half-Life 2 by one Dorian Gorski (a.k.a. Shokunin) on March 29, 2015, Transmissions: Element 120 now has a stand-alone free Steam version with some nifty new improvements and three new names added to the credits list.
At its core, 120 is a short, single player story that takes place after Half-Life 2: Episode 2.
Because the game is so short, I won’t talk about the vague story found within this title, but here is the basic intro: You wake up in a boxcar with no real idea of who you are, where you are, or what you’re supposed to do. This is fine, as it forces the player to learn movement controls without a weapon to distract them. Shortly after that, you find your crowbar and continue forward.
Gameplay is responsive and fluid, thanks to the port to Source 2013, and is carried out primarily through four chapters of solving puzzles and shooting enemies. Eventually, the player finds the new and improved gravity gun which allows you to rocket-jump to high ledges, blow open previously barred out areas, and launch enemies away. Puzzles are clever and sometimes surprisingly intuitive. Gunplay is quick and accurate (i.e. shotguns feel like shotguns). Playing 120 is a delight.
Graphically, 120 does an excellent job of working with what it’s got. Run down urban environments, tunneling sewer systems, and exploring empty business areas carry the feeling of isolation throughout, but the real hero here is the new lighting system Gorski implemented. Everything seems shrouded in abundant shadow. Dark areas are dark and even lighted areas seem like they’re lit by bulbs well passed their prime. All of this carries over to the mood of this title, which is primarily mysterious and eerie, and sometimes even downright creepy. One puzzle especially made me fear for my life: I was surrounded by the crescendo of growling zombies all around me and one overbearing sound of a distorted note always rang in my ear. Absolutely nerve wrecking.
120’s soundtrack consists of a vast range and variety of sounds, from ambient violins and digital moans of distortion, to pondering swells, to industrial beats with grungy bass accompaniment. For the majority of your playthrough, you will only hear your footsteps along with any ambient noises around you, such as moving trains or intercom announcements. Aside from the noises you make, you won’t hear much. Why? Because music in 120 waits for you. When you find the new and improved gravity gun, when you wade through a room filled with zombies, or when you’re fighting waves of enemy striders, these are the times the music kicks in, just to give the circumstances that extra “oomph” to elevate the current situation. It’s how music should work in real life.
So with everything right with Transmissions: Element 120, what’s wrong with it?
Two things: Loading times & length (ironic, huh). Locations in 120 are apparently independent of one another, while being interconnected at the same time. The entire experience takes place in one solid run with areas connected to one another directly, much like Dark Souls. At times, an invisible loading wall must be crossed to populate the next area with new objects or enemies and remove what the former area held. Every time you cross that wall you’re stopped and shown a loading bar which takes anywhere from 10-20 seconds to fill. This can be especially tiresome when trying to figure out if the crossbow room is accessible from the connected warehouse (spoiler alert: they aren’t). There’s a threshold placed to separate the two areas which will make you wait for 10-20 seconds each time you retrace your steps back, forcing you to wait up to 40 seconds if you only crossed back once. This is in no way a game-breaking problem, but it can ruin the experience when you accidentally trigger it multiple times in the same location, wasting time better spent playing the game.
My second scoring gripe is the length. The problem with immersion is that it requires enough of something to engulf one’s self. With that said, 120 is like swimming in a kiddie pool in your backyard while wanting to be at a water park. It’s a great substitute, a perfect one even, if only for a little while. It does the job of cooling you off while that unforgiving sun beats down on you from above, but it doesn’t give you anything substantial aside from a pool of water. And it isn’t a water park. It isn’t anywhere near a water park. And what’s worse, 120’s kiddie pool has a hole in it with about an hour long timer before your pool is a shallow puddle. 120’s length is the biggest problem with the title, which, in all honesty, is the best problem a game can have. 120 shines with polish, sounds great with the updated soundtrack, and feels like a title made by much more than just one person as a labor of love over the period of two years of nights and weekends, and because of all these reasons, it’s a true shame that it only last an hour. At the end of the day, I’m more than glad I experienced it despite its brevity.
Valve’s acclaimed Half-Life series has always been known for their immersive world, entertaining gameplay, intriguing puzzles, and the fact that everything takes place around the overarching story of a gnome trying to go home. Transmissions: Element 120 does a remarkable job of recreating and improving upon this formula. While not a lengthy, story-rich experience, 120 is still very much a well polished, fun experience akin to its source material (eh, Eh, EH?) distilled into an hour long package.
Great gameplay and clever puzzles, new dynamic lighting making an older source game still shine today, along with the new moody soundtrack all come together into a quick package that makes you thirsty for more.