Dead or Alive 4 is the first game I've ever played that has caused rapid hair loss due to stress. I swear I've lost more hair while playing this game than my entire family has in three generations. My thumbs are also blistered, which is about the nerdiest thing I've ever experienced, and I'm pretty sure I'm suffering from a mild case of insomnia thanks to a certain never-ending two-round fight in Time Attack mode. Yes, these are all symptoms of those who have played Team Ninja's uber-hard Dead or Alive 4. But I guess the real question here is: Is it all worth it in the end? Dead or Alive 4 (the rumoured final game in the series) has definitely hit the 360 with a bang, and while most casual gamers will be turned off by its unforgiving A.I., those willing to put in the extra few hours will find a beautiful game, rich with features and an online mode to die for.

The first thing you'll probably notice about DOA 4, once you've got it up and running, is that it really doesn't feel like a brand new game - more of an expansion pack of sorts. It's not until you actually dive into the game's various play modes and spend a hefty amount of hours learning the game's hundreds of combinations and counter attacks before you really start to notice a difference between this and others in the series. Dead or Alive 4 is simply not a pick-up-and-play kind of game and, similar to Perfect Dark Zero, cannot be judged based on first impressions alone.

The first time you actually enter a match and begin to play, chances are you're going to get your butt kicked, and not even because of the ruthless A.I., but because of the game's gorgeous visuals. Dead or Alive 4 is the best-looking game on the Xbox 360 - period. The environments are ultra detailed, animations are super smooth and it all runs at a dreamlike 60 frames per second. Gambler's paradise for example, is chock-full of reflective puddles, bright neon lights and plenty of other visual treats. As my best friend (and Xbox sceptic at that) put it: "holy crap, this game looks good."

I guess the only real visual complaints have to do with the character models themselves. Itagaki has once again chosen to go with the porcelain doll look, which, depending on your tastes, is either a good thing or a bad thing. Personally I've never had a problem with Itagaki's artistic take on the human body, but when placed against environments as detailed as those in DOA 4, the characters look a little... odd. Furthermore, aside from a higher poly-count for each character's garments, the models really don't look that much better than they did in DOA Ultimate, or DOA 3 for that matter. Finally, the game's other visual shortcoming is something that's plagued every game in the series - clipping. Hitomi's hair for example, swerves right through the collar of her jean jacket, and when a character grapples another, their legs often press right through the opponent's body. It's a little strange, yes, but it's nothing worth getting your underwear in a knot over.

But what good are visuals if there's no game to back it up? Fortunately Team Ninja has filled DOA 4 with a number of features, ranging from the deep sparring mode, to the classic Time Attack and Survival modes. You can also view your stats, play online (more on that later), enter the story mode, or view photos you've taken. The photo mode is a great idea, and something I'd like to see in every title, but DOA 4's photo mode is practically useless. You can't actually pause the match at any point and snap a shot; instead, you have to take photos while the characters are in full motion, and because of the game's speed, getting a good photo is about as hard as beating the game's final boss.

Dead or Alive 4 also sports an updated roster of characters. All of the classics return, such as the cheap, but fan favourite, Hayabusa, Itagaki's love interest, Kasumi, and pretty much every other character that has graced the series. The newest additions to the DOA family come in the form of the difficult-to-master Kokoro, my personal favourite, Eliot, and the stylish La Mariposa, with her ground-based wrestling manoeuvres. But the biggest surprise to the roster is the addition of a Spartan (aptly named Nicole) from the Halo universe. How did she get involved in the tournament? Who the hell cares! Does she fit in with the roster? No, but who the hell cares! Does she have any interesting unlockable costumes that aren't just colour variations? No, but who the hell... err...wait, I care!

Environments are stunning, but the doll-like characters look slightly out of place

Now, I know it's probably about time to talk about the gameplay, but I've got to address the costume issue. Every DOA game thus far has had plenty of unique costumes for just about every character. Heck, the DOA series wouldn't be what it is today without the ability to play a little dress up. It's what drives players to beat the game over and over again. But DOA 4's costume set is seriously lacking. Lei Fang for instance has almost six unlockable costumes that are just colour variations of the first - same with Hitomi. And characters that deserve more costumes, like Christie, have gotten the shaft. What gives? Xbox Live Marketplace perhaps.

Ok, so I've gotten a little ahead of myself. What's changed since DOA Ultimate? Well the biggest change is the game's counter system. Previous titles were pretty much a counter fest, with the fights going back and forth until someone lost the match. In DOA 4, it's still a counter fest, but it's not necessarily you who's doing the countering. You see, the window of opportunity to counter has been greatly reduced giving you only a split second to decide whether the attack is high, low, or a throw, and then enter in the appropriate counter command. So if Tina decides to give you a punch to the noggin, press back and X to counter it, or if it's a high attack, press back, up and X and so on. Because the game is so unbelievably fast, you basically have to memorize each character's move set to be able to counter well, and even then, getting the timing right can be a real pain, especially during the later matches. If all else fails, you can block your opponent's attack, but that proves to be a difficult affair as well. In fact, there's no real need to block at all as half the time the A.I. uses an alternate attack to break through your defences, and even when you think the attack should have been blocked, the computer still manages to get in a few hits.

This is by far the hardest Dead or Alive game in the series

This of course brings me to the game's biggest deterrent and ultimately the deciding factor on whether or not you'll buy it: the A.I. Dead or Alive 4 is the first in the series that doesn't permit players to change the difficulty below the default normal level. Therefore you're given no time to ease your way in to what is one of the most challenging games ever made. I'm going to go ahead and say it: no matter how die-hard a fan you are, no matter how hard you're willing to fight to defend your beloved series, this game is cheap. Cheap in the way that my friend refuses to tip a hard working waitress for her service, cheap in the way that my other friend (wow, I need to get a new set of friends) will fight to his grave to get a discount on an already discounted item. The computer, relentless in its attacks, will juggle you into the air, juggle you a bit more as you fall to the ground, kick you while you're down, throw you as you get up, and then juggle you some more. And if you even try to get a punch or kick in at any point during this onslaught, the computer will counter you, and start the combo all over again. The computer seems to be able to read every one of your moves before they even happen, and more often than not, it feels like the computer is deciding who wins the fight, not you. And after getting your butt kicked for a solid half-hour, the computer feels bad and lets you win a match. Even more frustrating is the fact that once you get your opponent's health down to a critical state, the A.I. seems to enter a sort of hyper mode, in which all of its attacks hit you, and all of your attacks get countered; it's downright maddening at times. All of this is especially evident in the game's final boss, who uses throws that knock off half your health, kicks that send you flying across the room, and a teleport move that puts her right behind you. Oh, and did I mentioned that she counters just about every one of your attacks?

That's not to say that you won't get better, because you will. And the more you play, the easier it gets. But even then, once you've mastered your character's move set, mastered the combo system and so forth, there are still times when the computer will enter its rage mode and end the match before you realize it's even begun. Sure, there are around 100 different moves for each character, but each move generally looks the same, has the same amount of damage, and roughly the same input command. Some of the more powerful moves, like the Raijn for example, are so difficult to pull off that you can't actually use them during a fight, rendering them completely useless.

However, DOA 4 still does quite a few things right, and once you learn to live with the A.I., once you get a better grasp on the counter system, the game does get a heck of a lot more enjoyable. And the levels themselves are not only beautifully rendered, but entirely interactive as well. You'll have to dodge oncoming traffic, watch out for bloodthirsty lions, or even avoid a bin full of apples. Most of the levels are also multi-tiered, so, just like in previous titles, you can knock an opponent down a set of stairs, off a cliff side or bridge and begin fighting once again.

Interactivity aside, the online mode easily takes the cake as the game's best feature. The variety of options alone is enough to have fighting fans salivate all over their controllers. You can enter Quick Match, Optimatch, Custom Match, and as I mentioned above, each style of play is littered with options to choose from, and if you're having difficulty obtaining any of the secrets within the game, you can purchase them online with Zack dollars, which you earn from winning fights. Best of all is the ability to play tag-team matches online where you can play with up to three players per team.

The online mode also features a bunch of quirky avatars and equally quirky lobbies to choose from (the first lobby being free, the second, third, and so on, requiring your hard-earned Zack dollars). The lobbies are cute and mildly entertaining (come on, chickens and ninjas watching a televised version of a match? What isn't funny about that?), if not a little out of place, and are used for watching matches, and well, that's about it. As soon as you enter a fight you immediately exit the lobby. So in reality, most players will skip through the lobby segment entirely, opting to challenge other players instead.

It'll take time to master the controls, and you'll spend an age playing online

For the most part, the online matches run smoothly, with only a few hiccups here and there, but the biggest problem lies within the number of glitches that appear to have gotten past Team Ninja's game testers. Ranks have been known to reset, and in other cases, stats randomly altered, for better or for worse. We can only pray that a downloadable patch is in the works.

Dead or Alive 4 is the kind of game you love to hate. You hate it for its cheap A.I., but you love it for just about everything else. This really isn't a game for everyone, and casual gamers, perhaps even long-time DOA fans, will be turned off by its steep learning curve. But there is a lot to love about Team Ninja's latest, and if you manage to master the ins and outs of the fighting system, you'll be rewarded with plenty of bonus content and more than a few hours of solid, competitive gameplay.