Astonishingly, I wound up finishing the last Saints Row: The Third story mission right at 20 hours. That was pretty convenient.
The back half of the story was as great as I remembered. It has you taking out the last two of the three gangs that comprise The Syndicate (you get the first one out of the way early on, but the details are pretty grim - the chase sequence on "pony carts" is funny, and if you don't think too much about it, the Boss getting sold as a sex slave to infiltrate the Morningstar gang's human trafficking auction is amusing) and each one is better than the last. You defeat the cyberpunk-themed deckers by skydiving into the cooling tower of a nuclear plant, stealing some outlaw Soviet technology, and then confronting their leader in a virtual world. And you take down Killbane, the leader of the Luchadors, by assassinating your way up the Murderbrawl XXXI championship ladder and then facing off in a ridiculous homage to pro-wrestling (by way of Steelport's psychopathic disregard for human life).
While all this is going on, you're also fighting STAG, and you get to kidnap Nyteblade, get plastic surgery to look like STAG's leader, and sink an aircraft carrier. It's pretty sweet.
However, it's not really the plot that makes SR3 a great game. Rather, it's something I only just noticed the other day. There are a lot fewer enemies in SR3 than SR2. In Saints Row 2, there were 12 named enemy characters (each of the three gangs had a power trio, the Brotherhood had Donny, and then you had Dane Vogel and Troy). In Saints Row: The Third, there are seven, but two are twins and one of the twins actually joins your side halfway through the game. By contrast, there are four named Saints in SR2 (plus Aisha) and 6-8 in SR3 (depending oh how you count Viola Dewinter and Josh Birk). This trend gets even more pronounced in SR4 (where most of your old enemies show up for a single mission, but then subsequently join the Saints and only Zinyak is really a persistent antagonist).
And it occurs to me that, as time goes on, the Saints Row series became more of a "hang-out" gang. We're increasingly shown more of the Saints and their internal relationships and less of the behind-the-scenes machinations of their enemies. That this tracks with the softening of the Saints from ruthless gangsters to more or less heroic figures is probably not a coincidence. It's like the genre of the game is shifting from crime drama to sci-fi action. And in the action genre, almost everything is seen from the eyes of the protagonists.
This teamwork and camaraderie is probably the Saints Row series defining characteristic, even more so than its off-the-wall zaniness. By the time Saints Row IV comes around, it really feels as if you're joining an evolving, but long-established group of friends.
But I don't want to get ahead of myself here. Saints Row: The Third is still strongly plot-driven, if less so than Saints Row 2, it just spares a few more moments of the gang hanging out and being friends (though nothing quite so inspired as the Boss and Shaundi playing skiball in SR2). Oleg and Pierce's thwarted chess games, talking to Kinzie under the table at Smiling Jack's, looking at Zimos' painting, these are good friendship moments that make the gang look like they really enjoy spending time together. The only really sour note in the game is Shaundi, who spends so much time being angry about Gat's death that we never really get to see the loveable stoner with a million ex-boyfriends that lies underneath. Luckily she makes a return in SR4, but then, there I go talking about the next game before I've actually started playing it . . .
Which I will do after I get a bit more of SR3 under my belt. I still have all the DLC to do and if I recall, it was mostly pretty fun. I definitely want to be the world champion of the Genki arena, plus I want a chance to use all the overpowered shit I just spent the last 20 hours unlocking.