Anyways, after the unfortunate first instance of DFM on a TGT_LEAD where I belatedly remember that 'whoops, I'm basically wasting my ammo', I'm finding DFM is actually one of the least problematic aspects of the game. It honestly feels pretty good to play and there's enough mechanical complexity to keep it from being a 'complete' rail shooter, stuff like reversals and such. I wouldn't completely banish TGT_LEADs, but I'd definitely reduce them, and systematize them in such a way that they're more gratifying to play. Mechanically I would suggest there being more skill in entering DFM (perhapss holding tone for 2-3 seconds), and also have some way to more effectively chain DFMs together.
Where the game really falls apart so far though is everything around DFM. The flight physics are garbage, it feels like your piloting a plastic bag, which makes ACM a fidgety mess. And that's only one element that makes non-DFM air combat completely impotent; Missile tracking has been nerfed, and the lack of any leading reticule makes guns literally useless outside of CRA. I have to wonder if making combat outside of DFM so dull was part of Kono's plan to emphasize CRA; if it is then it is a huge dickslap to the face of AC fans.
Also, the old AC5 problem of 'Kono cannot into mission design' rears its ugly head. Virtually every mission besides Blue on Blue I've played has had shit pacing. The natural end of Inferno, for instance, would be after clearing out the enemies over the airfield, but the mission carries on for two more sections before finally stopping. It's not exactly the same problem as AC5--there's always at least a dozen or so planes on screen and in one of the later sections of Inferno there's at least a couple score of Fishbeds, but how it's presented to the player is a wet fart, with non TGT planes treated as basically optional busywork before hitting the TGTs that actually move the mission forward. And the mission just stretches on and on.... and on and on. And it's not just fighter combat that suffers either, the first Apache mission would've actually been fun if it had been a third of it's actual length--the actual gameplay elements seem the most fully robust of any of the non-jet stuff--but it's made interminable by Kono's favored 'clear the blockades to help the ground troops' bullshit mission structure which pads out a full 5-6 minutes of a 12 minute total mission. But I still think the gameplay fundamentals are there and it's kind of weird that it's used just as often as the completely superficial Door Gunner segments.
I don't feel anything is wrong about the Door Gunner, mind, other than it's kind of simply a waste of resources (which obviously could be leveled at much of this game to begin with), The AC-130 mission is just kinda... bleh though. 'Death from Above' was meant to be a breather mission in CoD4, it wasn't meant to be seriously challenging. ACAH level tries to incorporate some amount of skill but it just ends up being a frustrating pixel hunt.
And obviously it goes without saying, but the story is complete trash and somehow ends up being more absurd than most AC games because we are explicitly in the real world. And while it's pretty remarkable that they're able to so well nail spunkgargleweewee aesthetics and tone, I can't say it's particularly fun to play. It's lameness is more banal than the cheesey but earnest melodrama he series is known for. And the whole "Russian Terror Syndicate" is up there with "Insurance Fraud" in terms of dumbass AC schemes.
Now I previously said I do think ACAH was a conscious attempt to emulate CoD, and I stand by that to an extent. But I think between playing the game, reading his retrospective and watching those videos, I think I've gained more of an appreciation for what he was trying to do, even if I do feel like he ultimately threw the baby out with the bath water. I don't think he was trying to superficially copy CoD aesthetics, if it were only that he wouldn't have created DFM. I think he recognized that CoD4 was something really disruptive to the military gaming market and was trying to dig deep into it to see what about it made it tick.
Something that kind of clicked for me recently is something Jeff Gerstmann said in regards to IW and CoD4, saying that they were the ones that made the act of aiming down sights "feel good". Now ADS is its own can of worms for many FPS fans, the ones used to gaming on PCs in the 90s see the rise of ADS as the killer of the fast-paced KB/M style arena shooters that used to dominate the market, but I think even so there's something about the gameplay loop ADS creates in CoD4 that is simply fun to play. So I think what Kono was going for was bringing that sense of immediacy to air combat.
From where I standing I don't know whether that concept was valid or not. I want to believe he didn't intend to undermine AC's fundamentals to get DFM to work; that he wanted to more create a space where a more visceral type of air combat was possible. But in the process he ended up alienating his core fanbase while eliciting a shrug from the general public. I don't think it was 'wrong' to try new things, and I hope he doesn't see the future of AC as endlessly pandering to fans of the PS2 games. His new philosophy on what the AC games are, a sense of progression, I think is much more on the mark than his 'exhilaration' comment, but we'll have to see whether it bears fruit.