The Most Difficult Games You've (Maybe) Never Played
OK, so my title might be a little exaggeration. Not that these games aren't the hardest ones I've ever played, but that you may have played some of them. Make no mistake, these games are head-bangingly difficult. And, I can testify to how much headbanging these hard games inflict because I've played them all. I really enjoy a challenge. Because I've made it a goal of mine to hunt down the hardest games, I'm limiting this list to three (update: four, I cheated). So, without further ado.
1. Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat and Warhammer: Dark Omen
Not to be confused with Blizzard's wildly successful Warcraft, these Playstation One Real-Time Strategy games are so good that fan-built Dark Omen games are still popular, online even. Between these two, difficulty is a toss-up. In Shadow of the Horned Rat, you play as Morgan Bernhardt, a military school dropout with a chip on his shoulder and a magical, fireball shooting blade gifted to you by a Bright Wizard Master. You also have your loyal cadre of cavalry, 12 in all, including you, and Lt. Schepke's 16 infantry (both of those numbers are gratefully 4 higher in the sequel). Gameplay includes completing several missions eventually culminating in preventing the Skaven Gray Seer Thanquol from capturing the Elven stones. Along the way, you will use infantry, cavalry, archers, crossbowmen, cannons, mortars, wizards, dwarves, elves, and magical items galore. You don't quest for glory and goodness, though. Bernhardt is a cold-blooded mercenary with a desire for gold. The sequel picks up by having an Undead king threaten the Empire. You stop him and become a hero worthy of any epic poetry along the way. Both games are faithful adaptations of the Warhammer tabletop games. There's no 1st person shooters, here!
What makes them so difficult is the sheer lack of forgiveness on the game's ends, the random nature of the mechanics, and the weight of numbers you are up against. A brilliant tactician could still lose a battle or two in this game and have to restart it. Aside from that, the game only gives you limited reinforcements and you have to pay for them. If you lost half your Grudgebringer infantry in the last battle, you may not be able to replace them all for the next one. Tactics are realistic; flanking and charging are good ideas, but while arrows fired from bows and mortars will fly over other units to hit their targets, bolts fired from crossbows and cannon shots travel in a straight line. Additionally, you have to pay to deploy troops into a battle, and you have to pay 1/10th of the deployment price just to keep the soldiers around when you don't use them. In other words, balancing your finances and reinforcements determines success on the battlefield in the long run. As one last caveat, though, the mechanics are too faithful. With wildly varying combat performances, it's exceptionally difficult, sometimes impossible, to accurately predict when a fight will end or how it will turn out.
2. UFO: Defence, a.k.a. UFO: Enemy Unknown, a.k.a. XCOM (The original XCOM)
All bow down to Julian Gollop. He brought us one of the longest lasting video games ever and one of the most difficult. UFO: Enemy Unknown, like it's latest successor, is easy if you play on the two easier difficulties. But, the remake's "Classic" difficulty is aptly named. Just try to play UFO on Superhuman without reloading an old save in anger; I dare you. UFO: Defence may have been too successful. It spawned numerous successors of paling virtue. At the risk of upsetting die hard XCOM fans, XCOM: Terror From the Deep and XCOM: Aftermath are decent (although, Aftermath's graphics are abysmal and TFTD feels like UFO underwater). The first person shooter and space simulators just don't live up to UFO' legacy though, in my opinion.
Regardless, the best remake belongs to 2K Games for XCOM. Kudos to them. For those die hard fans who may have missed it (or someone new who can't deal with the age-old graphics) check out Xenonauts, which was endorsed by Julian Gollop. Pre-final versions have already hit Steam and will be updated when finalized.
What makes it so difficult is the number of responsibilities thrown at you. You're responsible for research and engineering, so you have to build laboratories and workshops, hire engineers and scientists, pay their monthly salaries (a fully stocked lab costs $3 million to hire and $1.5 million to keep employed; America, the wealthiest donor, coughs up about $1 million each month), but you also have to choose which research and engineering tasks to prioritize. You're also responsible for building your bases, intercepting and shooting down UFOs, hiring and equipping soldiers (whose stats are randomized and improvable). You're also responsible for responding to downed UFOs, landed UFOs, and UFO terror sites. All are equally tactic-based and tense. A single wrong move can spell the death of your captain or colonel causing the rookies to panic. Even worse, if you do too well, the aliens will either retaliate by attacking your base(s) directly, or they'll make pacts with the funding nations losing you money every month.
3. Faster than Light, a.k.a., FTL, a.k.a., "Just go ahead and kill the poor bastards"
Faster than Light is a rogue-like with a sci-fi twist. Anyone familiar with rogue-likes will tell you that a rogue-like isn't a rogue-like without three elements: 1) random levels, 2) permanent death (no old saves for you!), and 3) endless tormenting difficulty. Just go ahead and try Nethack, A.D.O.M., or DOOM--the Rogue-like. Or FTL, for that matter.
What makes it so difficult...That's right. If you die in FTL, you start over. Talk about rough gaming. Additionally, the levels are randomized and generally inhospitable resulting in a lot of--you guessed it--dying. FTL does use a learning curve of sorts. It gets progressively more difficult, but always seems to progress faster than you can keep up. While your objective is just to get to the Federation fleet while the Rebel fleet chases you (originally, at least), you have to explore to get fuel which often turns into fighting. There are times when you run out of fuel or your oxygen system is destroyed during a fight and your crew can't repair it before dying from lack of oxygen.
There are always solutions, but never enough upgrade points to buy them all. If enemy boarders are destroying your systems, invest in stronger doors and make them die from lack of oxygen or lead them to the med room where your troops will heal during the fight. For what it's worth, I generally upgrade shields and engines to the max. Better engines mean better evading and a faster escape, if need be. FTL is far too rich and wonderful (yet frustrating) to sum up here. Check out their site, instead.
So there you have it, my short list of difficult games. I can think of so many more, like Mega Man 9 and all the XCOM strategy games (though, Aftermath is considerably easier, in my experience), but I need to end this article. Perhaps, I'll make part 2 some day. I also erred towards games that I thought others might find more popular, which is why I chose FTL over A.D.O.M. (you have to kill the God of Chaos in A.D.O.M., if you don't starve to death, get killed, etc., first). I'm also biased by a strong predilection towards strategy and role playing games (and a lack of PS2). What games have you found the most difficult?