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These 20 deep, absorbing PC games will eat days of your life

These majestic games demanded to be played for days, not hours—and your tenacity will be rewarded.

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Built to last

Far too many games these days are built to be played in small bursts: brief encounters, designed for a world with too few hours in the day and too many digital distractions. And that's fine! Blasting through a few rounds of Call of Duty multiplayer, or playing a few run-throughs in Spelunky, is a wonderful way to spend a few minutes.

But sometimes, you want something more—something meatier. Whether you're looking for an entertaining way to blow a long weekend or simply want to wrap your head around a satisfyingly complex experience, these 20 deep, intricate, and just plain great PC games will hold you for hours and hours and hours on end.

Editor's note: We periodically update this article as new games are released.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Let’s be honest right up front: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided isn’t as long as its predecessor, Human Revolution, and it ends awfully abruptly. But ignore all that. The game still offers the iconic wide-open system-based gameplay the series is known for, and it’s utterly superb. (Well, except for that ending.) You’ll spend 20 or 30 hours slinking around Prague, or even more if you’re exploring every nook and cranny. And Mankind Divided’s augmentation system continues to offer customized gameplay that lends itself well to replayability, especially when mixed with the handful of crucial, story-altering plot points sprinkled throughout the adventure.

The augmentations you choose help you tailor the gameplay to your chosen style: It’s possible to be a weapons expert, a hacker, a stealthy sneak, a smooth talker, or some combination of your choosing. Heck, you can even play as a pacifist, never killing a single enemy, with numerous endings available depending on your actions.

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Arma 3

Arma 3 is a glorious military simulator. But the key to its long life isn’t the core game as much as Arma 3’s thriving modding scene. There are scads of mods that completely change the game, each with hordes of devoted players and the possibility of adding hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Just listing off some of the more popular ones: Breaking Point’s basically DayZ. Advanced Combat Environment 3 is beloved by military sim purists. Wasteland’s a thrilling survival mod, as is Exile, which is more team-based. And then there’s Battle Royale, a last man standing mod that’s so popular it’s been worked into H1Z1 as well and is being developed as a standalone game called Battlegrounds. (I’ve spent endless hours playing it, poorly.)

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No Man's Sky

Okay, okay, No Man’s Sky didn’t live up to the hype for a lot of people, and its launch was rocky—borderline disastrous, even—on the PC. But Hello Games worked out the worst technical kinks quickly, and now that people are done trying to judge No Man’s Sky for what they wanted it to be, we can evaluate it for what it actually is—a chilled out exploration game with a heavy layer of survival elements.

Is that everybody’s cup of tea? Lord, no. But it sure is mine, and if the idea of casually exploring 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets in a massive universe sounds appealing to you, No Man’s Sky might just hook you for dozens of hours, too.

If that tickles your fancy, check out Starbound too. It’s like a 2D mash-up of NMS and Terraria.

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

After years of teasing and trailers, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt finally arrived in May 2015, instantly becoming a must-play game for RPG fans. The final chapter of witcher Geralt’s trilogy mixes the gritty, realistic atmosphere the series is famed for with a wide-open world reminiscent of Skyrim—but oh so different.

From swaying trees with hanging men to the way storms roll across the landscape at sunset, no other world in gaming has felt as alive as The Witcher 3’s (poorly-named) Continent. Expect to spend anywhere from 50 to 200 hours wandering it, and even more if you decide to pick up the superb Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions.

The game’s great, too, and fairly gorgeous—though you’ll want to disable Nvidia’s HairWorks on AMD Radeon hardware. The far shorter, but still superb Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is still well worth playing itself.

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Stellaris

Freed from the chains of history, Paradox takes grand strategy to the stars and creates a solid foundation that’s begging to be expanded upon in Stellaris.

Stellaris is best defined as a loosely-defined sandbox, with up-front complexity hiding emergent-narrative ambitions that harks back to Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Babylon 5, and every other sci-fi classic you can think of. Maybe you meet a race of benevolent birds, eager to share their research with the galaxy’s newest interstellar travelers. Maybe you come across the gasping remnants of a dying empire, still overwhelmingly powerful even in their death rattle and clinging to the few star systems they possess. Maybe robot workers revolt, tipping over the balance of a delicate singularity and ushering in a new era of machine-led imperialism. Or maybe humanity spreads throughout the stars.

Some sections of the game are a bit threadbare, and Stellaris’ early game outshines its mid-game. But there’s still plenty to sink your teeth into here, and given Paradox’s stellar record with its previous games, we fully expect the studio to flush out the game’s weak points in due time. Bottom line: It’s great.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2

XCOM: Enemy Unknown tasks you with defending Earth against hordes of invading aliens, commanding a force of soldiers putting their lives on the line to push back the threat. That's no joke: If one of the commandos under your watch dies, he stays dead, taking his hard-won experience with him. Too many wrong moves could leave your squad stacked with rookies rather than grizzled vets.

XCOM's tactical, turn-based combat is tough, but the game gives you plenty of time to think through your moves. Between missions, you deal with organizational tasks—managing finances, expanding XCOM operations, researching newly uncovered alien tech, et cetera. The single-player game is plenty long, but the enemy placement in battle is randomized, so every play-through is a unique experience. 

XCOM 2 ratchets the tension even higher by putting you on the offense, as XCOM becomes a guerilla force in a world conquered by aliens. The core gameplay's largely the same, but during the tactical phase you have to balance between striking the aliens where it hurts while avoiding their counterattacks, juggling scarce resources all the while. It's excellent.

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Grand Theft Auto V

It took years for Grand Theft Auto V to land on PCs, but the wait was worth it. The PC version of GTA V is easily the definitive version of the game, bundled with a video editor for custom clips and overflowing with all sorts of settings and sliders to tweak to bend the look of Los Santos to your will.

And oh, what a glorious world Los Santos is. GTA V features not only the massive city, but also the surrounding countryside, along with numerous suburbs, towns, and wilderness areas, all overflowing with stuff to do. This playground is utterly massive—and it’s fully open and ready to explore from the get-go, unlike previous GTA games. You could waste days simply people watching in first-person mode, and that's before dipping your toes into the addictive GTA Online.

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Elite: Dangerous

A sequel to the beloved Elite from the Amiga-era days, Elite: Dangerous is massive. This mammoth game drops you into the middle of a ginormous universe with more than 400 billion—yes, billion—individual star systems, each with their own planets, spacestations, asteroids, players, and more. And new things are being added all the time, aided by the games connectivity requirement. Simply traveling from our reviewer’s starting point to Earth’s home system took roughly 30 hours.

Elite: Dangerous would be well-served by better introductory tutorials, but for sheer size and scope, virtually no game beats this living, breathing world—which looks like it'll suffer an alien invasion sometime soon.

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Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2’s mix of deep customization, killer writing, a fully realized post-apocalyptic world, and flexible gameplay led to its being crowned PCWorld’s game of the year in 2014, despite a handful of quirks.

And Wasteland 2 is long. Simply leaving the first major area—a.k.a., the short one—takes roughly 30 hours. The entire game can take you more than twice that to finish. And then it’s all too easy to start another campaign, given how deeply you can customize each member of your four-member party and the how branching and responsive the wider Wasteland 2 world is to your decisions, both large and small.

Don’t miss this game, is basically what I’m saying.

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Dying Light

Dying Light drops you into the middle of Harran, a large city made even larger by its immense verticality—and the hordes of shambling zombies. Dying Light’s wide open world is basically Dead Island meets Far Cry meets parkour, and striding and leaping through the cityscape while waving cobbled-together uber-weapons at the undead is a hoot.

The base game alone will take you around 20 to 25 hours to complete, but Dying Light is bursting with secrets stuffed into every nook and cranny, from Mario Bros. homages to hidden weapons modeled after legendary blades. Fully exploring Harran will take you days—and that doesn’t even count the times you’re sidetracked by an irresistible zombie massacre. If you wind up thirsting for even more, the game's awesome The Following expansion adds a massive new area that'll take you hours and hours to explore, complete with a wonderful dune buggy to help you get around.

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Dark Souls 3

YOU DIED. Get used to the words; you’ll see them a lot. But as brutal as this dark fantasy is—and it is, have no doubt—each of those deaths serves a purpose. Every demise in Dark Souls III provides a learning experience, a small glimpse into the tightly-timed attack patterns and vulnerabilities of your tormentors. Over time—after you die and die and die—understanding dawns. When you finally use that knowledge to best the enemy, the frustration of all those deaths fades away in the moment of glory.

Until his buddy runs along and kills you with a single blow. This is the Dark Souls way. Love it or loathe it, you have to respect it—and mastering this world will take you many hours and many, many deaths.

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has a lot in common with Fallout: New Vegas, which makes sense—Bethesda owns both. Massive, open world populated with thousands of NPCs? Check. Deep character customization options? Check. Dozens of side-quests to discover and conquer? Check. Inventory items a-plenty? Yep, that's there too.

But Skyrim swaps out Fallout: New Vegas' retro-futuristic desert and guns in favor of a frigid fantasy realm full of dragons, magic, castles, and vampires. Join a guild, take sides in a rebellion, or ignore everyone else and just go wandering through the snow-capped mountains in search of lost crypts—Skyrim doesn't care. Either way, be ready to lose a big chunk of your life to Skyrim once you pick up your sword.

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EVE Online

Ostensibly a massively multiplayer online RPG set in a space-tastic sci-fi setting, EVE Online's often referred to as a "spreadsheet simulator" for its heavy reliance on statistics and focus on long-term planning. Building advanced ships takes insane amounts of in-game money and weeks of real-world time.

It's the players and universe that really make EVE Online shine, though: While day-to-day life in EVE involves a fair share of trading, ship-building, or pirating, the intrigue swirling around interstellar corporate politics gives EVE a feel unlike any other.

Sometimes, the tension explodes in massive space battles involving thousands of players and ships—like this one that did more than 300,000 real-world dollars' worth of damage. And did I mention the time one group tried to tank the entire game's economy by burning the most populated system in the game—a supposed safe haven—to the ground?

You might want to wait on giving this game a go, though—EVE Online is introducing a free-to-play tier in November after 13 subscription-only years.

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Divinity: Original Sin

Much like Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin is part of the grand Kickstarter-funded wave of utterly superb old-school-esque CRPGs that took the world by storm in 2014.

Divinity: Original Sin sports some wickedly smart dialogue—especially when you’re chatting with animals—and an awesome level of interactivity in its environments, which adds a thrilling new dimension to combat compared to most RPGs. The game features a co-op-friendly pair of main characters, too, so you can play all of it with a buddy at your side—or argue with yourself if you’re playing solo.

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Pillars of Eternity

Oh wow. Yet another entry in this mini-gauntlet of “Old-school RPGs that were funded on Kickstarter and wound up blowing us away,” Pillars of Eternity is nothing short of an utterly masterful game—and the Baldur’s Gate spiritual successor you’ve been waiting for all these years. (It’s made by Obsidian, which also created Fallout: New Vegas.)

Pillars of Eternity , like Divinity and Wasteland 2, features outstanding writing and world-building that reveals just how deep lore can go when freed from the shackles of voice acting and facial animations. The game’s 11 well-balanced character classes go far beyond the usual “fighter-mage-thief” trio. In a nutshell, Pillars of Eternity screams “Infinity Engine,” but with all the rough edges polished off.

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Sid Meier's Civilization V

No talk about intricate, meaty games guaranteed to suck away your free time would be complete without Sid Meier's Civilization V. The fifth installment in Meier's universally acclaimed series, Civ V is a 4X strategy extravaganza, tasking you with growing an empire from its first primitive settlement all the way through a bustling multi-city empire in the atomic era—perhaps even to the stars, if that's how your game shakes out.

There's a wide world to be discovered: cities to be built; land to clear for resources; technology to research; nation-altering social policies to implement; and, oh yes, plenty of wars to be fought. What's more, each of the dozens of available countries plays differently. It's all so well-balanced, so finely tuned, that you'll be playing "just one more turn" long into the night.

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Europa Universalis IV

Europa Universalis IV—one of PCWorld's favorite games of 2013 —is an empire-building 4X strategy game like Civ V, but the resemblances end there. Whereas Civ has a very defined (if widely varied) set of end goals, EUIV delivers a more sandbox-like experience.

Once you pick a country to play as and a year to start, you're basically left to your own devices. Europa Universalis IV is a game about colonization, enlightenment, overthrowing tyranny, religious upheaval, nation-building, mercantilism, piracy, feuding monarchies, and political intrigue—or none of that, if you feel like ignoring it. War is discouraged; patience and planning is required.

Such a complicated game is hard to describe in such a small space, so be sure to check out our full review of Europa Universalis IV for more info.

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Endless Legend

Then there’s Endless Legend, the only Civ-like 4X game in recent memory that truly gives Civilization a run for its money. In fact, in 2014 we preferred Endless Legend to Civilization: Beyond Earth.

Endless Legend breathes new life into the somewhat stale genre by imbuing each faction with distinctive attributes. The differences are more than mere unique units, too: Certain factions can’t declare peace after being provoked, while others are able to relocate their city at will, and so forth. Getting a handle on each of the stock factions in this wondrous game takes days and days, and once you do, you can even create custom factions of your own. Whew!

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Dragon Age: Inquisition

While it can’t quite beat out the legendary Dragon Age: Origins in my heart, Dragon Age: Inquisition is an explosive, snarling response to criticisms leveled at Dragon Age 2.

Inquisition —one of our favorite games of 2014—features several large, wide-open areas to explore, all teeming with baddies to kill, quests to solve, and treasures to sniff out. The storyline and characterization is second-to-none, and it’s all sporting BioWare’s customarily insane level of polish. If the game winds up grabbing you by the throat, BioWare says there’s more than 120 hours of content in total. But there’s still a heck of a lot of superb gaming to be found in Dragon Age: Inquisition even if you skip out on some of the fetch quests and optional resource gathering.

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Fallout 4

Welcome to the Commonwealth, the post-bomb remnants of the Boston area—a land rife with super-mutants, robots, bandits, freakishly augmented wildlife, and irradiated water. As "The Sole Survivor," you're on the hunt for your kidnapped son, and your decisions will mold the future of the Commonwealth—as well as which of several warring factions win control of the area, including Diamond City, a flourishing town built in the shadow of the Red Sox's iconic Green Monster.

To be fair, Fallout 4 isn't as roleplaying-heavy as its predecessors, and some of the game's rules and systems are frustratingly opaque. But the open world that Bethesda's built is just so big, vibrant, and full of stuff to do that you won't be able to put the game down. The lure of "What's over the next hill?" is strong in this one. It may not be as versatile as the Fallouts of old—heck, even calling it an RPG is a stretch—but this game's still an absolute blast in its own right... especially once you dip your toes into the deep selection of available mods.