The designers use these moments to slip from the freeform air combat to fly-bys low against the ground, often through skyscrapers and other scenery. While the flight paths are no doubt predetermined, the fact that you instigate them gives them an ad-hoc feel that is far more effective than any corridor shooter's set-piece parade.
Shoot down an enemy while in DFM and while a second enemy jet is within close range and you can chain together takedowns, inching the play experience closer to After Burner. But where the system shines is in the fact that enemy planes have the capability to engage DFM on your own tail.
When an enemy is chasing you at close range, a red and green triangle appears on the HUD. Decelerate so that the two symbols overlap and you can execute a DFM counter, where your plane loop-de-loops at the last second, positioning you behind your pursuer. The hunted becomes the hunter, allowing you to exact revenge on the pilot that's been chasing you. It's an elegant evolution for the series, arguably the most significant since its inception, and it modernizes and elevates the moment-by-moment play considerably.
Later in the game, alternate takes on the DFM system are unveiled, one in which you land the plane by maintaining the position of two reticules close to one another, and another, Air Strike Mode, in which you focus on attacking ground targets. Of the three, DFM is the strongest, but again, the variety works in the game's favour, obscuring any lack of depth in the individual mechanics.
Frequent checkpointing means the long losses of playtime incurred at a Game Over screen in the previous games are avoided, making this a far smoother ride. However, the variety seen in the mission styles isn't matched by the goals in play. Far too often, especially during the jet fighter stages, longevity is achieved simply by sending yet another wave of enemy planes for you to pick away at, a trick that loses all appeal in the latter stages of the game. As with its Modern Warfare inspiration, there's no branching narrative: if you fail a mission objective, such as failing to shoot down an ICBM before it leaves orbit, it's an immediate and jarring end.
The online portion of the game has enjoyed a serious upgrade, with a Modern Warfare-style experience system, complete with perks that unlock as you accrue points in both the competitive and co-op mission modes. Capital Conquest divides players into two teams, asking each to attempt to destroy the other team's HQ within the time limit. When the durability of a team's HQ falls below 20 per cent, that team can then choose to sortie in bombers, evening the odds and ensuring a close finish.
Domination is a sky-based version of the standard FPS game type, while Deathmatch has every pilot fighting for himself, with the added twist that different planes are worth different amounts of points, making craft selection a tactical consideration. In co-op, eight of the single-player campaign missions have been tailored for two to three players, in a generous addition.
So Ace Combat gains a contemporary sheen, borrowing the structure and style of the most popular current combat games. In doing so it adds new variety and, thanks to the multiplayer component, longevity.
Long-term fans of the series may argue that it has lost something too in the concerted attempt to mimic Western designs and style. But the losses are skin deep, certainly when compared to the most recent releases in the series. Under the hood, Namco's designers have upgraded the series' engine and mechanics in effective and interesting ways, making this the strongest Ace Combat in a decade.
8 / 10