Third time’s a charm with new ‘Saints Row’

Though the original “Saints Row” was thought by many to be riding the epic crime coattails of “Grand Theft Auto,” the video game’s 2008 sequel did an admirable job of beginning to develop its own over-the-top identity.

THQ’s Volition studio reaches its gang-warfare glory with “Saints Row: The Third” ($59.99, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3), a ridiculously fun and action-filled urban crime game that avoids the trap of taking itself too seriously. Sure, it’s violent, gratuitous and can be offensive at times, but that’s why it carries an “M” rating.

As the main character known simply as The Protagonist, you’re given total control over the look and sound of your persona through an expansive character customization sequence.

The Saints, having conquered Stilwater in previous installments, have evolved into a media-savvy commercial empire with their logo appearing on everything from body spray to energy drinks.

The adrenaline rush hits quickly as you, Johnny Gat, Shaundi and a tagalong don oversized Johnny Gat masks for an attempted heist of a heavily fortified bank. Things don’t go as planned, and your crew winds up in the hands of the Syndicate, whose leader offers freedom in exchange for a hefty cut in revenue.

Not wanting to become Syndicate pawns, the Saints cut loose and resettle in the Syndicate-controlled city of Steelport. The gang first sets up a crib in Shaundi’s old apartment, but don’t worry ? within a few missions you’ll be admiring a breathtaking view of the city from a roomy penthouse apartment suite with an attached heliport.

Completing missions earns both respect and money, and you can also build your hourly income by purchasing real estate and businesses. And there are plenty of cool weapons, vehicle upgrades and custom clothing on which to spend that newfound cash.

“Saints Row: The Third” provides a wide-open playground in which to explore, inflict mayhem and ? of course ? carjack. As with the “Grand Theft Auto” titles, half of the game’s fun is jacking a sweet ride, speeding around town with the stereo blaring and bringing it back to your garage for customization.

Most of the primary missions are downright intense. The excitement peaks when you’re getting chased by numerous cop cars, being fired upon by attack choppers and catching gunfire from competing gang members.

Many of the added side missions tap into the game’s lighter side.

The goal of insurance fraud is to dive in front of numerous passing vehicles and inflict personal damage in the hope of gathering settlement cash. In another bizarre minigame, The Protagonist finds himself in the middle of a Japanese-style game show hosted by sarcastic emcees with the goal of attacking mascots and escaping a maze.

Primary and side missions can be accessed using your smartphone, which acts as a central organizing tool and allows you to call on your growing cadre of homies.

My favorite is a purple hat wearing pimp named Zimos, who sings his Auto-Tuned dialogue using a gold microphone held up to his tracheotomy. (And yes, he still smokes from that same hole.) You’d think the gimmick would quickly wear thin, but missions after meeting him, I still found myself laughing at an occasional Zimos line while firing shoulder missiles at helicopters attacking a cargo ship.

There’s even a “Hangover” type moment in which you have to drive around with an annoyed tiger sitting in the passenger seat ? a test of your bravery by one of your homies.

The game offers a well-constructed co-op mode, allowing players to tackle the storyline with an online partner, and a gratuitous take on first-person shooters’ hoard modes, which is easily skipped.

The cops’ behavior can be puzzling at times. Officers will get involved if they see you killing someone, but you can often blatantly cut off an officer or inflict major property damage without the risk of a chase.

It also would be nice to have a little more freedom to explore inside some of the more interesting buildings.

But “Saints Row: The Third” is an outrageous romp that should, with occasional trips off the beaten path, provide a solid 20 to 30 hours of entertainment.

Three-and-a-half stars out of four.