The reason for this reminiscence is because when I first started playing Assassin's Creed II (hereafter, "AC 2") I was reminded of a certain feeling I had when I played the second Spyro game. I loved that Spyro game, "Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage" because of how it set up rewards for hard work. Basically, the core "currency" in Spyro is gems, and collecting more and more gems led to the ability to "buy" new levels, or new abilities, or new points of interactivity in existing levels. I just love this setup so much, because it uses in-game rewards for the player's hard work. The reward system was a sharp change from the first game (and actually, it is different from most platformers), where the "reward" for hours of treasure hunting is usually just bragging rights, or the ability to claim that elusive "100% mark" in games. The alternative system, in contrast, basically creates a feeling that the game is more than just a platformer, pushing it closer to action/adventure games such as Zelda, or even (gasp!) an open-ended RPG! In these games, work is certainly rewarded through better abilities, better weapons, or more interesting environments to explore -- all with a great story.
But AC 2 is certainly not a platformer. It is an action game. But the in-game rewards for hard work make it a significant improvement over its predecessor in this category and lends some more depth to the gameplay. In the first AC, no matter how many of the little sidequests you did, your work didn't really pay off in a way that made it worthwhile to continue collecting -- in the end, it basically led to useless trophy/achievement hunting.
Not only do the sidequests mean more in AC 2 (you are helping build a new town, buy better armor for yourself, and so on), but they are significantly more varied when compared to AC 1. This makes it easier to go treasure hunting, exploring the extremely detailed Italian Renaissance cities along the way (complete with architecture, political figures, language, and art all historically accurate, or so I'm told).
The game, in short, is really really good. It is certainly one of the best games I've played in a while. The sidequests are varied and interesting, the graphics will make your eyes water, the story is somewhat interesting so far, and the level of detail is astounding.
I have two main criticisms at this point: the game is very easy and the sidequests are overwhelming.
The player can enhance armor very early in the game (helped by a rapid accumulation of money, for various reasons), making damage reduction minimal and boss fights a breeze. Health is extremely easy to come by -- for two reasons. First, it's cheap and you basically never have to worry about money. Second, the medium pouch you can buy early on (the one I had within a few hours of playing) will allow you to hold 10 medicines which restore a good amount of health, giving you practically infinite life during boss fights.
Boss fights, and killing in general, are significantly more open, i.e. less discreet, than any game titled "asssassin's creed" should be. I've messed up on secrecy in a few boss battles and barely "paid" at all for these mistakes. It's much easier to escape from guards here than in the first game. This drives it as much more of a loud action game than its predecessor. Some will find fault with this, but it's a tricky issue in my book. Unless controls are darn-near perfect, spy-themed games can be extremely frustrating for the player. Metal Gear Solid has been very successful with its control schemes, but you can tell early on that AC 2 is going for something different. Which is fine in my view, but it depends on what you are expecting. There is a small exception to the "easy and loud kills" trend: some sidequests can be quite challenging in how they ask you to fulfill the mission (killing guards a certain way, or without being caught, etc.).
I will have much more to say about this issue in the full review.
I've put a lot of time into the game and I'm barely halfway through the story. Each town I've been in (Florence, Tuscany/San Gimignano) has tons of treasure chests and challenges (races, courier jobs, assassination requests, codex pages, and assassin's tombs). So much to do! It is a blessing and a curse, and after a while you definitely get sick of some of the errand running. Luckily, as I said above, there is much more variation to each type of quest in this game (and much more interesting stories behind them), but it will be hard to invest the time to get everything in it.
Well, since this was only meant to be a "first impression", I will stop here. But I assure you, this is a must-own game for PS3 or XBox 360!