There's a throwaway catch phrase on the back of the Saints Row: The Third box that simply states "Strap it on".

At least, on any other game it'd be a throwaway phrase. With Saints Row, it's a statement of intent. This third iteration of the popular open-world action title is even more obscene, more over-the-top, more absolutely insane than anything developers Volition have dared to unleash before. And it's utterly brilliant.

The Third Street Saints have taken on corporate sponsorship since the end Saints Row 2, and have risen above the level of mere street thugs to hugely popular celebrity thugs. They've gained endorsement from the mysterious Ultor Corporation, and now spend about as much time committing extreme acts of violence as they do signing autographs for obsessed fans. This is about as credible as the entire premise gets, as having botched a woefully organised bank heist the Saints are incarcerated, then released after rival gang The Syndicate bribe local enforcement agents in an attempt to free the Saints' leadership, and secure the majority stake in their criminal empire. Gotcha.

Before entering the world, it's necessary to customise the avatar of the lead character utilising an exhaustive supply of sliders, which allow virtually every aspect of appearance to be modified. It doesn't really matter if mistakes are made either; by visiting plastic surgeons during the game, any previously configured settings can be altered again. Changing from a hugely overweight African-American with sideburns to a demure, tattoo-covered woman might be cause for concern to peers and associates in the real world, but it's necessary to point out wherever possible that Saints Row is far from a real world simulator.

It's also far from a graphically superior simulator as well. At times, the action struggles to deliver 30 frames per second, and there's an overall lack of detail to most environments. The city of Steelport doesn't feel as dynamic as Stilwater either, but again, Volition are obviously content to sacrifice bleeding-edge technology for content, which is a trade-off more developers could learn from.

Having realised that Steelport is a city besieged by three rival gangs, the Saints are in a prime position to lever each against each other in an effort to gain the upper hand. This is facilitated, in true Saints' style, by multiple missions to cause as much carnage as possible whilst still retaining the lead in asset possession.

Each activity has been carefully constructed to allow the widest range of absolute mayhem whilst still retaining continuity in the game world. Almost all are accessed through the players' mobile phone, which has the appearance of a conventional smartphone. Here it's possible to accept missions, set waypoints to targets using the in-game map, or pick up random tasks using the Saints Book application. There's also access to manage weapon and combat upgrades, and even call in assistance from other gang members.

Combat follows a fairly predictable path, although with the exclusion of lock-on targeting there's more here to appeal to hardcore players. That's not to say any aspect is overwhelmingly difficult – the easy setting can be skipped by anyone who has actually played a game before – but a certain level of competency is assumed. Vehicles are surprisingly well managed too, cars aren't subject to woolly handling, and can be driven at the limit with little practise.

Once missions are completed, new cribs can be unlocked across the map, which in turn allows greater areas to be explored, opening up the game for even more outrageous action. Most of the main story missions and alternate side missions involve some interaction with the three gangs that form The Syndicate; The Morningstar consists of Euro-henchmen, The Luchadores are madly-dressed Mexican wrestlers, and The Deckers are comprised of cyberpunk "hacktivisits". Each are varied enough in their demeanour to allow the story writers considerable artistic license, which they appear to have embraced with a kind of childish glee.

When it comes to choosing between vaporising enemies with a sonic blast, starting a massive street brawl culminating in the liberal use of rocket propelled grenades, driving a vehicle that actually sucks pedestrians in and spits them out, launching yourself head-first into a moving vehicle to commit insurance fraud, driving a tank around exploding everything, running assault missions in a chopper, or parachuting into a brothel populated by gimps and decorated with dildos, it's easy to assume pretty much every other videogame activity will appear pale by comparison. Saints Row: The Third does strike out on occasion – some activities are tedious, such as the Tron-inspired light cycle scene, but fortunately for every slow moment there's dozens of other ridiculous activities to make up for it.

Hulk Hogan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sasha Grey and Burt Reynolds all lend their voices to a narrated story that often contains clever cultural references, pithy remarks and dark humour. With such insanity on offer, the game can't afford to take itself seriously at any stage, and the acting talent on offer helps avoid any stale void in the action. There's no greater meaning to any of it, but then that's the point.

After tooling about in the main story arc either alone or co-op with a friend, the additional Whored Mode adds further madcap action. Facing incoming waves of hilariously sinister foes in a number of environments isn't new, but when applied with the Saints veneer it always makes for welcome fun.

Indeed, where Saints Row started life as a rather curious yet significantly underwhelming title huddling under the shadow of the behemoth that is Grand Theft Auto, Volition has cleverly carved out their own niche in the open-world genre. A new subset of whimsicality, a side-branch that can ably be described as "balls-out insanity". Where Duke Nukem Forever tried to recapture a smutty, juvenile humour long since evaporated from the decomposing remains of the 1990's, Saints Row: The Third invents its own madness, and meets the player at eye level to deliver it.

This is the strength of the series, the fact that it's content to afford the player the assumption of maturity. That whoever takes part can make utterly mad choices at any stage, and pass off what would otherwise be extremely suspect activities under the guise of stupidity. Never has the phrase "the game made me do it" been more appropriate, or more welcome.

With the holiday calendar chock full of titles, Saints Row: The Third stands out as a holiday retreat, to be sampled again and again whenever a healthy dose of stress relief is required.