Much of it is familiar; wandering around in frighteningly accurate arcades messing with UFO catchers and playable cabinets (there's a full port of SEGA's arcade quiz game Answer X Answer, right down to the customary smoking men in their thirties hunched over the screens), gambling or playing Mahjong, visiting restaurants, romancing girls and taking them out on dates (there's the usual side-mission involving sleeping with all of the hostesses you can meet in cabaret clubs). But a lot of it isn't familiar, like golf, billiards, karaoke, fishing and playing poker. The new mini-games are brilliant - nothing else in the game quite tops pressing buttons in time with Kiryuu's amazingly heartfelt rendition of the Yakuza 2 theme in karaoke while an appreciative girl claps along, or providing slightly out-of-tune backing while she belts out one of five J-pop classics.
A lot of effort has clearly gone into fleshing out the world with even more things to do, and this was never a series light on side missions. There are more than a hundred, and they don't always involve dragging yourself around town trying to find someone's lost dog/brother/handbag or beating people up. There's an insanely in-depth one involving grooming a perfect hostess, where Kiryuu has to first charm random girls on the street into performing at the cabaret club in his Okinawan suburb ("I'm sorry... you're so beautiful, I just had to speak to you"), then dress them up and change their eye make-up, accessories, hair and every other conceivable feature of their appearance to appeal to the customers outside. (I lost hours fashioning the perfect gyaru.)
All of it's documented in completion lists which challenge you to own every single one of the hundreds of in-game items and complete every single side-mission, get world-beating scores in all the mini-games, find or create every piece of weapon and armour, sleep with every hostess, beat every opponent in the underground coliseum and find every single lost bloody locker key in the entire in-game world. It's enough to inspire either awe or absolute terror, depending on where you fall on the scale between obsessive-compulsive completist and normal human being.
This is what we've always loved about the series - the insane level of detail and interactivity of its world. It's in stark contrast to the sterility of other openworld games, which are filled with food you can't eat, shops you can't visit and people you can't talk to. In Yakuza 3, there are not only functioning restaurants, there are functioning restaurants with menus that vary according to the time of day; it's filled with shops and brands that you can actually see on Japanese streets. It's so realistic and alive, it's almost uncanny.
It also means you can wander away from the story at any point when you inevitably get tired or frustrated with the repetitive missions and combat, which helps the game's pacing no end and makes it easier to forgive the game for being so stubborn with its awkward design decisions and determination to make you wander around the same areas over and over again looking for someone or something that will advance the story. Indeed, it's often at those very times that you find a particularly enticing side-mission or well-hidden locker key.
It's also difficult not to like Yakuza 3 for being a game for grown-ups, with sex and death and whiskey and politics and swearing. As over-the-top as it can be with its storytelling, there's a feeling of gritty authenticity to the story and characters, at least once you get past the crying orphans. It's this, especially, that makes us sad that SEGA has been so unenthusiastic about initiating any sort of localisation plan for Europe. Being as text- and plot-heavy as it is, Yakuza 3 is impossible to play if you can't read Japanese (and even if you can, the swearing, slang and strange yakuza language can sometimes trip you up).
For all the care, attention and money that has clearly gone into Yakuza 3's development, it remains anachronistically reluctant to adapt its gameplay to modern times and modern tastes. Some might find that endearing, but for most it will grate. The end result, though, is nonetheless slick and gorgeous, absorbingly detailed and full of life and personality. In terms of craftsmanship, dramatic impact and cinematic impressiveness, Yakuza 3 is far, far ahead of most other games in the world. It's hard to resent it too much for being backwards in other respects.