A very pleasant surprise indeed.
I will be honest, I didn't really pay any attention to the Yakuza series up until this third installment, and the only reason I decided to check this game out was because of the Giantbomb quick look. And I don't regret my purchase one tiny bit.
The StoryYakuza 3 revolves around the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a now ex-yakuza who opened an orphanage on the sunny beaches of Okinawa. However, political and criminal intrigue ensues and thus Kazuma has no choice but to get dragged back into the dealings of the Yakuza in order to save his land from being taken from him.
The game has alot of recurring characters, so you may be thinking about at least reading up on the Yakuza 1 and 2 story to get the full experience. Luckily for you, Yakuza 3 has two videos available to watch which quickly comprise the story of Yakuza and Yakuza 2 for you, which I think is a great addition so it doesn't make it less enjoyable to players new to the series and fiction.
Having played through it, I can tell that the Yakuza 3 story is well told with great cutscenes and this is perhaps the Japanophile in me speaking but I really like the Japanese voicework. Even caught myself nearly getting teary-eyed at some key points in the story, but that could just be me being a big ninny.
The WorldYakuza 3 features an open world with lots of restaurants, bars and even bowling centers and batting cages for you to take a break on. There's even an arcade which you can play an Arcade-esque shooter and one of those catcher games. These minigames are surprisingly well made, and I actually found myself playing golf for a damned hour before i got on with the story.
But besides the story and absurdedly well-made minigames (well, for a game thats not focused on them anyway), there are also some sidequests for you to embark on. These range from simply delivering something, to saving a girl who'se been kidnapped by a foreign group. The rewards for these little sidequests range from loads of Yen, to valuable items and always a few thousand experience points.
As silly as this might sound, these sidequests are actually enjoyable and make it feel like the world is actually alive rather then a bunch of scripted npc's walking between A and B forever until the end of the game. When I went into a bar and drank <insert japanese alcoholic beverage>, I got some information boxes detailing some info on the drink and how it's made. Kind of pointless, but still a nice detail.
The CombatHowever, it can't all be sunshine and sidequesting for cash. As you embark on your quest to save your property, there will be fisticuffs. Lots of it.
The general combat in Yakuza 3 is satisfying and feels good, but what you really want to do is keep building up your HEAT Meter. Your HEAT meter is basically your rage meter, and when it gets full, Kazuma can execute powerful finishing moves using the enviroment, the weapon he is holding, or in some cases just his fists. These finishers do great amounts of damage and are always fun to behold.
As you might have guessed from the above sentence that there are also weapons in Yakuza 3, the two variations are weapons that you pick up from the fighting area, such as iron pipes, wooden planks, a giant tuna fish, a giant tuna fish head, a couch, an LCD TV Screen, a bar stool, police batons, beer bottles, beer crates, bottles of mystery fluid (Yes, there is a seperate HEAT Finish for that one). Needless to say that the weapons you can pick up are nice and varied.
The other kind of weapons are the ones that Kazuma can go and buy himself at the Weapons dealer. Contrary to the other ones, bought weapons will also break, but are usually more durable and do more damage then the average weapon he picks up from his enemies. These weapons can simply be brought back to the shop and be repaired for a fee, even though i never caught myself using weapons as much since it felt more satisfying just to beat people to death. These weapons can also be upgraded with a rather complicated material system but I never found the need to actually get new weapons or to upgrade the ones I did have.
The NA/EU Release both had some content cut from their versions, such as the Japanese history quiz game, and the hostess clubs. I'll leave it up to you to find out what hostess clubs are and probably why they got cut from the NA/EU release.
The only other things I can say about this game is that if you're good at these kind of fighting you might immediatly wanna go for the Hard difficulty setting if you're really looking for any kind of challenge, as I breezed through the fights on Normal and never even came close to having to retry any fight.
I'll close this off by saying that Yakuza 3 is definitely worth checking out if you have a PS3, I didn't regret it and you probably wont either.