Here's the tl;dr summary of Saints Row the 3: Amazing customization options, great visual style and a more-than-decent sandbox are nearly completely ruined by some of the most shittily thought-out story missions I've ever seen, and a general preponderance of glitches and broken mechanics.
Now on to the l;r. I've never played the previous games, since the first is exclusive to two consoles I don't have, and the second is still going for $20+ somehow (while this one keeps popping up on sale for under $10.) But my understanding is that this started up as a fairly blatant GTA clone, and has since proceeded to establish its own identity by being as over-the-top and gonzo as possible. It's a game where putting on a fursuit and beating people to death with a giant purple dildo on the way to a mini-game where you have to ragdoll yourself by getting hit by speeding cars on the freeway is considered "normal gameplay."
Apparently the first two games took place in the city of Stillwater, where your character took lead of the Third Street Saints gang and helped them rise from obscurity to control of the city. The third game opens with the Saints on top of the world, no longer just a street gang, but an international pop culture phenomenon with their own line of clothing and energy drinks. Fate conspires to hand them a Bag Of Spilling
, however, when they unwittingly rob a bank owned by an international criminal cartel (imaginatively) called the Syndicate. The Syndicate hacks and wipes their bank account, and through various contrivances played out in the first mission, causes the core members of the Saints to be trapped in the new city of Steelport, where they'll have to build back up from 0 again.
The game's opening missions - which constitute about an hour of gameplay - do not get things off to the greatest start. It's basically Saints Interminable Turret Sequences mixed with XTRREEEEEMEEE ATTITUDE *DEEDLYNEEDLYEEDLYEEDLYEEYYOOOOOW* (/electric guitar), as the Saints go from bank robbery, to armed ambush, to parachuting and crashing through the window of a jet, to parachuting again (with a midair gunfight) into Steelport. All of this is done in that trendy, God Of War sort of scripted way, where you actually have pretty minimal control over the proceedings and it's often more like a big interactive cutscene than actual gameplay. I'd say to the devs that I'm not impressed by this set-peice-explody shit and am just sort of impatiently drumming my fingers and waiting for it to end so that I can get to the actual sandbox gameplay content, but I know they don't care, because I'm not the more lucrative target demographic
they're aiming for here.
Anyway. The scripted story garbage eventually ends, and the game deposits you on the streets of Steelport, to do as you will and ignore the story missions for as long as you want. This is where the game is at its best, and I really had a good time with it for about 8 hours just blowing off the scripted story crap entirely while exploring the environment and all the side stuff. The character customization, first of all, is incredible. You can create anything from a 100 year old crotchety Methusela woman to a giant green cross-dressing blob-man, and they not only look good, but are also totally incorporated into game cutscenes. Customization extends to the game's various vehicles with an impressive array of options, and (after some moar story missions) you can eventually customize your gang followers (to a somewhat lesser degree) as well. For the most part the game world looks really appealing, and the city is well-constructed and enjoyable to explore. There's a good mix of "side activities" to participate in that resemble the "kill frenzy" modes from the older GTA games, in that they take place in a sort of temporary pocket reality that ceases to exist when the activity concludes - one places you in a tank in the streets looking to simply rack up as much property damage as possible, another makes you invincible and sends you out in traffic to commit insurance fraud by bouncing between cars and trying to stay airborne as long as possible, yet another takes you into a crazy Japanese game show that's like a super-kawaii version of the Running Man. The purpose of all this is simply to pile up money and "respect", a stand-in for experience points that gradually unlocks upgrades to your character, vehicles and gang members. The game also features no shortage of stuff to spend those piles of money on - investment properties that generate more money at regular intervals, weapon upgrades, clothes and costumes, vehicle customization and upgrades, and a wide range of tattoos. You can even go to a plastic surgeon and change anything about your character's base appearance at any time ... even their gender and voice. Impressively, seven separate voice tracks were recorded with all of the game's possible dialogue for your character - three male, three female, and even an unintelligible zombie. The undead are society's new trendy marginalized group, after all.
Saints Row obviously cribs heavily from GTA, but also outdoes it in a number of ways, mostly thanks to an overall design philosophy that emphasizes fun and player convenience over any concept of "realism." GTA started to go in this direction with San Andreas - which to me was far and away the best game of the series - but snapped back hard in the dour, "realist" direction with GTA IV. Saints Row, on the other hand, just goes more balls-out with each installment. One example of this is the "Bo Duke-en", which is simply pressing the action button while sprinting near a car, causing your character to instantaneously crash through the window, eject the driver and take control. It's completely fucking implausible, but it's also infintely better from a gameplay perspective than awkwardly dancing around in front of moving cars hoping they'll stop politely for you so you can jack them, or even better, hunting for a bigger vehicle to steal first so that you can force a smaller one to stop. Simply ducking into a property that you own for a second instantly wipes out the obnoxious "Wanted" meters - infinitely better than hiding in some crevice where the spawn-in computer can't establish line-of-sight until a timer dwindles down, and eventually you get an upgrade that can instantly wipe out a "Wanted" meter with a simple phone call (with a long cool-down period to avoid being a total game-breaker.) The one gameplay nitpick I have with "sandbox mode" here is that the button that answers your phone for the irritatingly hard "survival missions" is the same button that opens doors and carjacks, making it easy to accidentally initiate one of those missions out of the blue at random when you're simply in the middle of trying to get into a car or something. Still, it's not even an issue unless the mission happens to be in the zone you are currently in, or blocks off one you need to get to, as there's no consequence for simply staying out of that zone until it goes away.
One area where Saints Row decidedly does not outdo GTA, however, is in the radio stations. Perhaps I'm spoiled by GTA's music direction, which always seems to have a selection that is of good taste and even throws in a few good but obscure genres to broaden your horizons. Saints Row's music, on the other hand, simply plays it safe and panders to the lowest common denominators of popular taste. You have the commercial corporate faux-thug rap station that plays Jay-Z and Kanye Billboard 100 songs. There's some electronica/wubstep station. There's a painfully unlistenable heavy/thrash metal station. There's a "bro rock" station that plays stuff like that "BREATHE IN BREATHE OUT" song that gets spammed at sports games. There's an Adult Swim station that, like nearly everything Adult Swim has been doing since 2007 or so, is painfully unfunny and I have no clue what they're going for other than pandering to suburban teenagers who are totally baked. I'll grant that it's an accurate reflection of the terrible popular music climate of the early 2010s, but it also still roundly sucks and gives you no alternative other than a "classical" station that is stereotypically snooty and plays only the most generic "fine dining" music that you would hear in an upper-class 1980s restaurant. There's a bit of DJ banter but it's forgettable, nowhere near the levels of the Lazlow-directed GTA games.
The place where it all goes to shit is the story missions, which you can ignore for awhile, but not forever. The crap from the first couple of missions unfortunately is a reflection of how most of them end up playing out. There's an awful lot of Escorting and Turreting ... and it's often clunky, frustrating, and poorly plotted out. There's a few problems that keep recurring. One is that the enemies you face are unabashedly the Bullet Sponge archetype. They give no fucks about shotgun blasts at close range, and keep charging you even when pumping their legs with bullets. Even an automatic rifle slug to the head isn't enough to put them down initially, at least not until you've upgraded it a couple of times. The regular enemies are bad enough about this considering the endlessly spawning masses they usually come in, but this game introduces giant enemies called Brutes that might as well have their pictures in the dictionary next to "Bullet Sponge Enemy." These giants merrily charge through even grenade and rocket blasts giving no fucks whatsoever, and later in the game they start coming equipped with flamethrowers and miniguns to boot. Enemies like these are tedious, and generally Bullet Sponging is usually used to cover for inadequate programming that can't handle the complexities of positional damage and good AI. Given how enemies dopily stand around waiting for grenades thrown at their feet to explode, I strongly suspect that's the case here. Sponge enemies are present in the non-story action, but it's much less of an issue as they are more easily dispensed with and can simply be run away from if things get too tiresome (possibly coming back with a helicopter or fighter jet to finish the job.) Brutes also rarely show up outside of story missions, and never the really obnoxious super-fast ones with flamethrowers and miniguns.
Problem #1 ties in with Problem #2 - apparently the story missions were designed to be played co-op over Steam or Xbox Live, with single players as the afterthought. Missions come with "homies" that were meant to be controlled by other humans; in absence of those, you get derpy computer AI stand-ins instead. Why is this a problem? Because in the overwhelming majority of missions, death of a "homey" is an instant mission fail. So in addition to dealing with multiple superfast flamethrower Brutes while being pecked at by spawn-in enemies with ridiculous accuracy off in the distance, you also have to constantly try to protect and revive some idiot standing right out in the middle of the action getting chopped in half. Missions require a ridiculous amount of fail/reload simply because "A Homey Died!"
Problem #3 is also escort-related, but involves the numerable turret sequences rather than on-foot gunplay. Generally these sequences have you up in a helicopter or something, protecting a car below from ridiculous amounts of enemy cars by using a rocket launcher. Within seconds of appearing within your range, the enemy cars zoom up next to your escort car and stay there; of course, the derpy Homie AI refuses to drive defensively or make any attempt to separate, so it's nearly impossible to blow up the enemy car without splash damaging your ally car. The enemy cars also come fast and furious and are usually spamming rockets to boot, not giving you much of a margin of error. And it's one of those games that talks loud shit to you the entire time if you aren't performing perfectly too. Again, I assume the Homie in the car was designed to be driven by an actual person, and in absence of that the AI is wholly inadequate to the task, and the designers just shrugged their shoulders and didn't bother doing anything meaningful to compensate.
Saints Row 3 received nearly all positive reviews. While the pro reviewers were critical of aspects of it, one thing I didn't really see brought up was how over-difficult and shit the story missions are. I can think of a couple of reasons for this, typical to the pro reviewer; they're either on a tight deadline and thus using cheats, so they can't get an accurate bead on the game's relative difficulty, or they're simply afraid to ever label anything as "too hard" because the legions of no-lifer 12-year-old boys who comment in their forums will spam them with"l0l n00b ghey!" We have no such encumbrances here. And I appreciate that nearly all the difficulty problems I outlined can be negated by simply using cheats - which the game makes easy - and/or ratcheting down the difficulty to "Casual" temporarily ... but that's not something you should have to do to compensate for shit design and lack of polish. If you can live with the shitty story campaign problems and terrible soundtrack, Saints Row 3 does offer a sociopathic good time in its other aspects.