So I'm really impressed with Ace Combat 4. Think I'm closing in on the end of it -- the story is certainly building to a natural climax and final confrontation, so I'm looking forward to taking that on when it comes.
I've been interested to see how the story is handled throughout. I initially figured the narrator was the player character, and that it was a flashback to an earlier time, but as you progress it becomes more obvious that the game is actually running two parallel storylines: "your" story of becoming the ace pilot Mobius One, and that of the occupied city where the narrator, who is looking back on his childhood, lived alongside Yellow Squadron, the group indirectly responsible for the death of his family.
It's interesting that Yellow Squadron aren't set up to be monolithic, undefeatable bad guys. Yellow Thirteen in particular is a major character, but he's only human, just like everyone else. Through the narrator's observations, you can see that they're struggling just as much as the Allied forces -- perhaps even more so. This is particularly evident in the sequence where the narrator recalls telling Yellow Thirteen to "get out of my city, fascist", and his response is simply "Do you really hate us that much?"
What I really like about how the story develops is the growing feeling of "importance" you have to the war effort. Early in the game you're just an anonymous pilot, but by the time you reach the mission where you're liberating the narrator's city at midnight -- one of my favourite missions so far, incidentally -- you're hearing ground troops saying things like "Wow, that's Mobius One protecting us!" and enemies expressing fear at the sight of your plane's distinctive markings. It gives a real feeling that you've built up a reputation through your successful missions -- and this is driven home when you get indirectly mentioned as "the ace enemy pilot" by the narrator, and that Yellow Thirteen acknowledges your efforts as being something worthy of praise, even though you're on opposite sides.
The true turning point -- the moment where the narrator's story and Mobius One's story truly intersect -- is the mission that concludes with a flight of planes from Yellow Squadron approaching you, and your expectations being set that you'll have to shoot them down; instead, the mission abruptly ends when you shoot down whichever one is Yellow Four: Yellow Thirteen's wingman, protege and possibly something more than that. The interplay between the two storylines throughout is set up to make you question what it is you're actually doing, but this moment more than any other really gives you pause and makes you wonder if you've done the "right" thing, particularly as it's strongly implied that she didn't get out of her plane in time and was thus killed by your actions.
Stepping aside from story matters, though... Gameplay-wise, I really appreciate the level of freedom and flexibility the missions offer. While there's the occasional scripted moment -- any time you get shot at by superweapon Stonehenge is rather thrilling, particularly the sequence where you're flying back to base through a narrow canyon beneath the altitude of Stonehenge's shockwaves -- for the most part you're simply given an impressively large battle area to fly around as you see fit, and a rather vague mission objective. In most cases, you're either destroying all the marked targets in the time limit or attempting to score more than a certain number of points in the time limit, but the variety in terrain that you're flying over -- everything from arctic tundra to the canyons, valleys and mountains of a river delta -- keeps things feeling really fresh. As I noted before, the city liberation mission was one of my favourites, simply because it actually felt and looked like you were flying over a real city -- and this was backed up by things like the news broadcasts you'd intercept on your plane's radio.
The whole game treats the player with respect and as a result manages to spin an exciting, dramatic tale without being overly prescriptive about what the player should be doing: it's a good balance of story and game, in other words, and it makes me even more curious to see how the other games handle things.