Despite the genre becoming more varied than ever, first-person shooters still provide some of the most demanding gaming experiences.
For over 30 years, these challenging shooters have continued to captivate and immerse players with unforgiving environments, relentless enemies, and dwindling resources. Given the genre’s ability to remain relevant, the most challenging first-person shooters span gaming history from the early 90s to modern times.
2017’s Prey reboot might not have a lot in common with the original game, but it does create a lot of challenges. The interweaving of horror elements keep players on their toes, the variety of challenges require adapting to multiple playstyles, and the intelligent enemies adapt to players’ actions, forcing them to adopt new strategies.
On top of that, many of the game’s level designs feel convoluted. Whether intended or not, that creates lots of opportunities to get lost and turned around. Prey provides a strong sense of accomplishment though, as many of the challenges involve unpredictable solutions that require real fortitude to surmount.
2. Doom Eternal
Doom Eternal leaves the brain-teasers at the door and focuses instead on white-knuckle combat and mastery of movement. Players with slow reflexes and low patience need not apply. Those who can master the cycle of glory kills, chainsaw kills, and flame attacks can keep a steady stream of health, ammo, and armor coming in while they dish out damage.
The handful of platforming sections and boss battles mixes in some variety to the game, as do some of the tougher enemies that require specific techniques to take down. Doom Eternal and its expansions remain equal parts mesmerizing and demanding.
3. ARMA 3
As a simulation game, ARMA 3 makes no bones about trading away arcade-y fun in exchange for realism. Communicating and cooperating with teammates remains paramount in this series, as any one weak link could sink an entire mission. The game adds additional challenges with performing intricate medical procedures and the need to adapt to harsh weather on the fly.
ARMA 3 has a reputation as an unforgiving first-person shooter. The gratifying feeling of overcoming all it throws at the player remains unmatched by most first-person shooters.
4. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
The difficulty of the Counter-Strike series has a reputation in the gaming world, and Global Offensive keeps that streak alive. The absence of aim-assist mixes with tight controls to create one of the genre's most precise and unforgiving first-person shooters ever. Controlling recoil and memorizing level layouts can keep players alive.
That said, they'll need more than that to stand among the dedicated Counter-Strike player base in any meaningful way. Global Offensive remains the very definition of a relentless first-person shooter.
5. Devil Daggers
Devil Daggers keeps things simple with an isolated area full of demons and monsters players must defeat. The player must stay alive, while chipping away at enemies’ health and managing the small space of the arena.
The retro-style art direction gives the game an interesting personality, but the stiff challenge will seldom allow the player to gawk for too long. Strong enemies, limited ammo, and a total lack of health regeneration stand in the player’s way, but it can be overcome with practice.
Unlike most shooters, this game has always been about developing skills as opposed to “finishing it,” as the permadeath mechanic makes clear. The constant pressure of endless enemies and a tight space to maneuver in might make Devil Daggers an acquired taste, though fans of first-person shooters will love it.
6. Escape From Tarkov
Escape From Tarkov brings gamers back to Earth in the most realistic sense possible. The superior tactician will always win here, so players can't gloss over communication and deliberate movement.
The realism gets kicked up a few notches with the players’ aim and movement becoming impacted by various injuries. Imposing AI opponents will always look for a way to outsmart the player, too. What's more, PvPvE matches mix real competition with other players into the mix, making the experience that much less predictable. Players can't ignore the long road of acquiring the best weapons and gear, either, so prepare to struggle for a while until that gap can be closed.
7. Rainbow Six: Siege
The Rainbow Six franchise made a glorious return in 2015. Siege takes the series in an interesting direction with a laser-guided focus on tactical extraction mechanics. While the gunplay’s realistic recoil and bullet penetration provide a significant learning curve, the planning and dynamic environments keep players on their toes.
No matter how well-executed, any plan can go awry with the game’s destructible environments and flexible situations. Competing against other teams poses one challenge, but trying to rescue hostages and defuse explosives at the same time make Siege a real challenge. All fans of first-person shooters should give it a try, though, as it remains one of the finest shooters of its kind.
8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Most folks remain aware of the general difficulty of Machine Games’ Wolfenstein duology and their respective expansions. The flexible level designs allow for multiple playstyles to work, but none will be easy.
Wolfenstein II perfects that approach. If adopting a stealth strategy, players must contend with sensitive enemies and a constant threat of being discovered at inopportune times. If rushing into each stage, guns blazing, powerful enemy firepower, and multiple waves of reinforcements await. Wolfenstein II never gives in and will make players work for every inch of progress. That makes it so great, though.
9. Doom II
One of the best games in the Doom series, Doom II doesn’t screw around. Even the first few levels can throw curveballs and powerful enemies that will make short work of unprepared players.
Unlike the original Doom, Doom II assumes players know the basics and throws them into the meat grinder of hunting down key cards while clinging to every health point. The levels also feel more intricate than those in the original game, further increasing the odds of losing familiarity and running into a bad situation. Relentless enemies, limited ammo, and an unsettling vibe that keeps a player on edge round out Doom II as a difficult experience.
Blood might pose an even greater challenge than Doom II overall, as it takes those aggressive enemies and limited resources to a different level. The demonic edge that Doom games hinted at in the 90s also sees a front-row seat in Blood’s setting. That makes sense–hellish challenges never seem to stop.
Classic gameplay elements like non-regenerating health and strict ammo availability also apply and accentuate the difficulty, but that emphasis on challenge in Blood makes it stand out in the sea of Doom knockoffs.
11. Ion Fury
Many first-person shooters take inspiration from classic Doom games, but what about Duke Nukem-likes?
While Ion Fury differentiates itself from the herd in a few ways, it’s pretty clear that this game takes more inspiration from the iconic macho blockhead. Equipped with an arsenal of her own corny quips, Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison serves as a female analog to Duke Nukem and his disproportional confidence. More importantly, the difficulty of her game remains one of the more notable challenges in the genre. Keeping Shelly alive means keeping weapons stocked and levels memorized, which never gets any easier with the near-constant hail of gunfire coming her way.
Ultrakill has learned a lot from the challenging first-person shooters that came before it. The game implements those learnings in ways that make it feel unique. While many challenge-focused shooters tend to go with a '90s look, Ultrakill looks and sounds more like a game on a PlayStation 2 or a Dreamcast console.
This early polygonal look and full range of motion means that all three axes matter now, and enemies will pour in from all of them. The arsenal of weapons has a few surprises, but nothing excuses the player from learning the ins and outs of strafing around the levels and how enemies behave.
Ultrakill might not be the most challenging game profiled here, but it still packs a punch.
13. Deus Ex
At the time of Deus Ex‘s release, many of its ideas still felt quite new for the genre, and yet it made them feel organic to the experience. The choice-and-consequence mechanics and a detailed augmentation system open the door for a lot of possibilities and, if not managed well, a lot of challenges. While the game doesn't require stealth, it will be preferable to the alternatives. Most shootouts result in quite a mess.
Still, Deus Ex’s stealth remains a tough road with sensitive enemies and dire results for getting caught.
14. Hell Let Loose
Hell Let Loose lives up to its name on several different levels. On one hand, the game’s setting highlights the hopelessness and futility of war with battles that rage on for hours. On the other, it’s just hard as heck.
Strategy can only go so far in Hell Let Loose, as the giant battlefields and realistic sniping can disrupt any plan. This calculated gameplay can also turn casual players away and draw in a more die-hard gaming audience, which makes the average match much harder. Limited HUDs also make less information available to players, forcing them to keep track of things on their own, creating more room for error. As usual, in games like this, the team with the best communication will win, but even then, nothing can be certain.
15. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow Of Chernobyl
Navigating through a radioactive zone poses enough of a challenge. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. makes things much tougher with mutants to fight, different factions to deal with, and dire story consequences for bad choices.
The tension of this sort of environment also never relents, which maintains some level of urgency. The game also remains well-known for its lack of hand-holding, with no tutorials or hints. Speaking of which, the game even features a mode permadeath for those who want even more of a masochistic experience.