Game Review: Okami

By Mike on 3:14 pm

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Ok, lets launch off another game review. 2006 was a very good year for gaming. It's 2008 now and gaming is moving along well. So why am I reviewing a PS2 game that's over a year old? Well, because it's coming out on Nintendo Wii on April 15th. I already mentioned Okami in my top ten of artistic games but lets see where it hits and misses where it really counts. Okami was developed by the now defunct Clover Studios and was published by Capcom. The Wii port is being done by Ready at Dawn.

The story is loosely based on Japanese Shinto folklore. Don't worry, I wouldn't call this a religious game. The story takes place in around the classical to medieval eras in Japan. You play as Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess who has come to Nippon in the form of a white wolf. 100 years before the game takes place, you and the great warrior Nagi had fought the dreaded Orochi, an eight headed beast that had been terrorizing a small village. Orochi was defeated by you and Nagi, but you die in the battle. Your spirit slumbers in the statue of a wolf. 100 years later, Nagi's descendant Susano accidentally revives Orochi. The game begins as the revived Orochi has unleashed a dreaded curse upon the lands of Nippon. It's Amaterasu's job to lift the curses and defeat Orochi once and for all.
The game itself bares some similarities to the Zelda series. The game's developer has admitted to taking inspiration from Nintendo's classic franchise. It's fitting that it would eventually end up on the Wii over a year after it's original release in December 2006. The game itself seems made for the Wii's motion features, though lets not downplay the original PS2 release. Like Zelda, the game is huge and involves a mix of fighting, adventuring, and solving side quests. Even the game's main screen and menus are strikingly similar. That's not to say that Okami is exactly identical to the Zelda series. Though it borrows a lot from Zelda, it is its own unique game.

Lets talk technical details first. The game's graphics take the form of a living painting in the Japanese watercolour, woodblock, and Sumi-e styles, also borrowing from the works of Hokusai. It uses cell shaded graphics. Cell shading is a technique for rendering 2D objects in a 3D environment. The same technique was used in Wind Waker and The Simpsons Game. It's also used heavily in 2D cartoon shows and movies these days. Futurama was a notable pioneer. So while your character is 3D, they appear to have no depth. Another unique feature is a paper filter, which gives a paper texture to complete the living painting effect. The environment is hauntingly beautiful, it's one of the best looking game's I've seen in a long time. Perhaps what stands out the most is that the game looks hand painted. The game has settings to optimize it for CRT or LCD TVs in the menu settings, allowing you to pick what's best for your TV. I'm not sure exactly what this means though. The PS2 version sports 480i resolution with a 4:3 aspect ratio. The Wii version is 480p with a 16:9 aspect ration. PS3 owners can play the game upscaled for HDTVs. It actually excellent on an HDTV considering that a lot of other PS2 games have aliasing problems at HD resolutions. Okami doesn't have this issue. IGN noted that while the Wii version has slightly better resolution, the paper filter (which surprisingly adds a lot to the feel of the game) is not as noticeable as it is on the PS2. Both versions have some frame rate issues but otherwise the graphics are pretty smooth.

The music is also well done in Japanese classical style. The game truly is an AV masterpiece. The sound track is beautiful and the sound effects realistic. You get your choice of stereo sound or 5.1 Dolby Digital. I did feel the game could have really used full voice over rather then the computer generated babbling that Clover used. Voicover would have allowed for more expression from the characters, given that the artistic style of the game allows them to only express emotion through body language. The babble can also get annoying during particularly long pieces of dialogue. It's a minor issue but it would have been nice to hear the characters speak. Then again, Link has been silent for years and babble is better than nothing. According to the game's English translator in an interview, Okami had too much dialogue to practically do voiceover since it would not fit on a single DVD otherwise.

Gameplay wise, Okami is somewhat similar to Zelda. The game is huge and takes about 30 hours to complete the first time through. There's a wide variety of locations you can visit, from cities, villages, the sea side, fields, and dungeons. Throughout the game, your partner Issun the Wandering Artist acts as your guide. Issun is from a race called the Ponnicle who are only one inch tall. If you're familiar with the Zelda series, Issun plays a similar role as Navi did in Ocarina of Time though he fills a much larger role. Because Ammy is a wolf and can't talk, Issun speaks for her. He provides a lot of the comic relief for the game but his character is actually quite complex.
One of the unique aspects of the game is the celestial brush. Hitting R1 will freeze frame and you can draw things on the environment using the Square button and the left stick. In the Wii version, the left stick will be replaced by the Wiimote. There are thirteen brush techniques in total, which are learned as you progress through the game. There are also several sub-techniques you can learn. The brush techniques are your part of your god powers. You can use them to attack and defend against enemies, alter the environment, or open new paths. You draw symbols for the specific powers. The size of the symbol you paint effects the intensity of certain powers. One of my pet peeves about the game is that it can be a bit sensitive when it comes to detecting the technique you want to use. Sometimes you'll draw the right symbol but it won't trigger. The brush is not infinitely powerful. You have a limited supply of ink that drains each time you use a technique. The ink slowly replenishes over time but you have to carefully manage it so you're not caught running out of ink in the middle of a boss battle. Not only will you loose your brush techniques, but also your god powers.
Combat is arena based. Demon scrolls are scattered about the land. If you come too close to one, it will chase you and start a fight. Fights are enclosed by a demon barrier. You have a variety of weapons at your disposal. These are mirrors, rosaries, and glaives. You can equip a weapons as either primary or secondary. Secondary weapons have different abilities than their primary counterparts. The weapon you have at the beginning of the game (a divine mirror) allows you to make close range attacks and can also be used as a shield as the secondary weapon. Rosaries are long range and are used as a whip, or as projectiles as a secondary. Glaives are swords that work best at very close range and launch charged attacks. You get new, better weapons throughout the game, either by completing quests or buying them at a store. You can also upgrade weapons with gold dust.
Since Amaterasu is a wolf on four legs, she controls the weapons telekinetically. If you run out of ink, you loose your god powers which is bad in battles since you loose your special abilities. If this happens, she's only able to fight like an ordinary wolf. No weapons, no enhanced physical abilities. You don't regain your powers until three ink bottles are replenished. However, you can never technically run out of ink as it's being constantly replenished. Some monsters will drop ink bottles for a quick boost. Tools can be employed in battles, such as certain sakes (rice wine/beer) which can improve attack or defence ability and the Inkfinity Stone, which gives infinite ink for a limited period of time. There are a few other aspects of combat worth noting. You have limited solar energy, which is your health. Victory in combat gains money in the form of Yen, which you can spend at shops in the game for more items. You also gain godhood power through combat, which acts as a shield to protect from a limited number of attacks without taking damage. Drowning or running from battle looses godhood. Combat controls are tight and you can learn additional battle abilities at one of three dojos in the game. Lastly, you also have an astral pouch, which if full of food, revives you if you die.
Okami also has some roll playing elements. Throughout the game, you'll be given various quests. Solving problems gains praise. Since you are a god, praise gives you power. You can then bank it to enhance your abilities. You can put it towards more solar energy, more ink capacity, bigger wallets, and a bigger astral pouch. Quests include restoring cursed zones, restoring nature, feeding animals, and helping characters in the game. There are also spots where you can dig up wilted clovers (Clover's shameless plug, lol) and use the brush to revive them. The clovers give you even more praise. You can also dig up treasure chests. Treasure can be collected and sold for money. In battle, sometimes you will get demon fangs, provided you preform a certain special attack which varies depending on the monster. These can be traded for special powerups.
There are a large variety of characters to interact with in quests. There are humans, ponnicle, other gods, and demons. The story is well laid out but there are some parts that irritated me. The story becomes too anime-like towards the end of the game, which I felt did not fit in with its theme or world. The game does have anime overtones throughout but I just though the ending was weird. Without giving too much of the plot away, lets just say it involves fighting a mech and ends with some J-pop over the credits.

For difficulty, as I said it takes about 30 hours to complete. It's no more difficult than your typical Zelda game but there are some parts that do have no room for error. One of which is a race against a demon through a room of saws that nearly drove me nuts, since it was timed. If you've played the Zelda games though, this game is quick to get into. Even if you haven't, it's pretty easy to pick up. The game does a good job at describing how to play. The manual is also well written and even takes the time to explain some of the mythology used in the game. It goes the extra mile for non-Japanese audiences. If you want to learn more, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Final thoughts. Clover took an epic story and mixed it together with a proven concept and produced a masterpiece of a game. There are very few games of this calibre. I dare say this matches Ocarina of Time, one of the titles that inspired Okami. It has won numerous awards, winning several game of the year trophies. IGN ranked it 90th out of the top 100 games of all time. As they put it, though it's similar to Zelda in some aspects, it's unlike anything else. It's definitely a game that every PS2 and Wii owner should have in their collection. Clover studios closed shortly after Okami was released so unfortunately there will be no sequel. Okami will remain unique. Fortunately, it will see a second life on the Wii and hopefully will sell more copies. It's probably the one of best game I've played.

What works
-Excellent storyline
-Unique and hauntingly beautiful "living painting" art design
-Excellent musical score and sound effects that blends seamlessly with the environment.
-Unique gameplay with the celestial brush
-Finally a game that matches Zelda.

What doesn't work
-Weird 'anime-style' ending doesn't fit the Okami world
-Game sometimes has trouble recognizing brush technique inputs

Rating: 10 out of 10

Tips, Tidbits, and Easter Eggs:
-Plant a tree next to Kushi when she's at the springs. She'll be so delighted, she'll give you a hug.
-When the game is completed, select the red "start here" icon from the saved games menu. It will start a new game but you'll get to keep your items, certain weapons, ink bottles, solar energy, money, and astral pouch contents that you had at the end of the last game. Brush powers are not transferred over though.
-Thoroughly search areas as many special items are well hidden.
-Keep visiting the Dojos to learn new techniques.
-Shooting projectiles at Orochi's individual heads will irritate him. He might need a drink after that.
-Sake is featured predominantly in the story. It is sometimes called rice wine but it shares more in common with beer and spirits. It is non carbonated, typically with low alcoholic content (12%). It ranges in taste from sweet (Nigori) to dry and has a smooth body. It can be clear filtered, or unfiltered giving it a cloudy appearance and milky texture. It is usually served chilled or at room temperature in small cups or saucers. Cheaper varieties can be drunk warmed during the winter months.
-Headbutt the bathroom door at the inn in Kusa village. The girl will freak out. Visit her later in the guest room on the right and she'll give you a sidequest.
-Race the postmen in Shinshu and Ryoshima three times each for a special reward.
-Talk to Camille by Konohana in Kamiki village. Headbutt her when she asks if she's dreaming. Talk to her and her sister again while visiting the city.
-Visit the tower in the Aristocratic Quarters and the rear of Himiko's palace after beating Ninetales.
-Collect demon fangs whenever possible. They can be traded for certain special items. Talk to the Emperor in Sai-an City.
-Collect all stray beads for a special reward.
-In the game's manual, Amaterasu is said to be deliberately genderless. However, several scene in the game clearly identifies her as female. She is also clearly stated to be female in the original Japanese version and in the concept art comments in the Art of Okami book.
-While they share the same name and have similar powers, the Amaterasu in the game is not the Amaterasu from Shinto mythology. Neither are the other characters despite their stories and names being similar. Is this were the case, Susano would be her brother and a fellow god.
-Western elements appear in Okami. Susano's design is partly modeled after Popeye. Waka speaks French and has blong hair. Westerner characters were originally going to appear in the game with different font for their dialogue.
-The weapons in game represent the imperial regalia of Japan. The sword Kusanagi, a mirror, and prayer beads, all said to be owned by the mythological Shinto goddess Amaterasu. They share similar mythological background to the True Cross and the Holy Grail of European mythology. However, the imperial regalia is claimed to actually be in the current possession of the holiest Shinto shrines. No historians, archaeologists, or members of the public have actually seen them though so this claim is debatable.
-The brush gods in the game represent the animal figures of the Chinese Zodiac.
-An Okami original sound track was released in Japan as a CD boxed set but was never made available in other regions. The OST is unlockable on the Okami DVD.

Macbook Air & Thoughts on the Ultralight Laptop Craze

By Mike on 8:25 pm

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Apple released several new products at MacWorld 08. One of them was the Macbook Air, an ultralight laptop that is only 3/4 of an inch thick and weighs in at 3lbs. Apple claims it's so thin, it can fit into a legal sized envelope. Rounding out the other specs includes a 1.6ghz or 1.8ghz Core 2 Duo processor, 2gb DDR2, an 80gb mechanical HDD or a 64gb solid state HDD, Intel integrated graphics, and a 13.3 screen with a res of 1280x800.
Just like the Eee PC, I'm not particularly impressed with this product. Overpriced and underpowered. The Macbook Air is essentially a neutered vanilla Macbook. The top model of the Air has a processor that's a full 200mhz slower than the base model Macbook. It only has one USB port, no firewire, no optical drive, no ethernet port, no audio input port. It does have a mini-DVI port for video out and 802.11n Wifi. The regular Macbook has all that and for only $1199 while the Air costs $1799. If you want the 64gb solid state hard drive for the Air, the price balloons to $3000! The Macbook is just over 1'' thick and weighs 5lbs so it's certainly not much bigger than the Air. It also has a replaceable battery.
Who would buy this I wonder. Not many I'll be willing to bet. You'd be a fool if you didn't think laptops would get thiner and smaller than they are today but these particular models are sacrificing too much for too little size reduction and cost more to boot. While I'm sure the Air is a decent system, the cheaper Macbook is superior to it in almost every way.

Some thoughts on solid state drives. The Air has one as an addon. 64gb, which is less than the stock mechanical drive. They have the advantage of having low energy consumption, which is a bonus for any laptop. They also have much lower seek times than mechanical drives. However, is this really worth $1200 more for less storage space? Power savings is the big draw. Comparing battery life, the regular Macbook gets up to 6hrs, while the Air gets up to 5hrs for some reason. Those are according to Apple.
As for cost of SSDs, you might be thinking how much a 500mb drive cost back in the early 90s. Granted but times are different today. Back then, storage space was really all that mattered and there were no cheaper alternatives with similar performance. SSDs don't have faster transfer rates, just faster seek times. In a desktop, a couple of Western Digital Raptors at 10,000rpm still smoke SSDs in terms of raw performance. Average read/write rates are more important than seek right now, given mechanical drives have pretty low seeks today as it is. The difference is not enough for the average user to notice. There has been debate in the past over how long SSDs last compared to HDDs. MTBF data does suggest SSDs should last longer but that's yet to be seen in the real world. The only real noticeable advantages to them are less noise and heat. While solid state drives likely are the future, especially as carbon nanotubes replace NAND flash, I don't think they really have a place in computing right now. Dollar per gigabyte, mechanical drives are still the best bet.

Review: Uncharted: Drakes Fortune

By Mike on 7:27 pm

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The PS3 has been hammered a lot lately for the quality of its games, and up until late Fall 2007, I'd be inclined to agree with those people. The long running joke that Xbox fanboys have is that the PS3 is nothing more than a folding machine. Fall came around with some unusually strong titles. One of these was Uncharted: Drake's Fortune from developer Naughty Dog. If that name sounds familiar, Naughty Dog are the same people behind the hugely popular Jak & Daxter series.

Uncharted is a third person shooter, like Gears of War on the Xbox. You play as treasure hunter Nathan Drake, self professed ancestor of Sir Francis Drake. The game begins with a search for Drake's coffin which Nathan finds at the bottom of the ocean. In it, he recovers Drake's journal which sends him on a quest for the mythical El Dorado, the city of gold. Without giving too much of the plot away, you run into rival treasure hunter Gabriel Roman. Nathan's partner Sullivan apparently owes him a lot of money. Needless to say, Roman just happens to have a nearly endless supply of mercenaries hunting you down throughout the game. This game actually reminds me a little bit of Far Cry, though I only played the demo version of that one. Both were set in a tropical environment, both saw the main character fighting mercenaries, and both had state of the art graphics at the time of their release. I'll talk about that last one next.

Uncharted is a visual masterpiece and is a real showpiece for what the PS3 is capable off. All elements of the game are rendered in real time, excluding cinematics. However, it's hard to tell between the pre-rendered cutscenes and regular game play. Frame rates are rock solid throughout the game. Environments range from lush Jungles, Mayan ruins, and a Spanish fort. All are rendered beautifully. High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting has become a staple in gaming these days but is often overused to the point of looking unrealistic. In Uncharted, it's well done, in a way that faithfully mimics true real world lighting. Characters in the game are well modelled. Check out some of the screenshots on the official site. A lot of developers try to pass off prerendered scenes as in game action but this is the real deal.
The sound is also excellent in the game. Well rendered. It's too bad I don't have my PS3 connected to a 5.1 system to get the most out of it. Another positive aspect is that Uncharted is not dogged by the long load times that some other PS3 games are. Loading screens are few and far between. Considering this is probably one of the most technically advanced games on the PS3, it's a mystery why other games are having this problem. Uncharted doesn't even install anything to the hard drive.

Gameplay combines third person shooting with platform gaming. Nathan Drake is a true parcour fanatic when it comes to climbing on rock ledges or spelunking in dark caves. It's a little different from most games and may catch you off guard at points but once you get used to the controls, it's pretty easy. The Sixaxis is used for this portion game but minimally.
You can't really die in the game since if you fall or get shot dead, your character starts back at the beginning of that particular area of the level. You'll find yourself in gun battles a lot in the game. Nathan can crouch behind rocks, walls, or other objects for cover in a fire fight by pressing the O button. L1 puts you in shooting mode, R1 is the trigger and you aim with the analogue stick. Gun fights are fast paced with a lot of action. You get a choice of a variety of weapons including various handguns, sub-machine guns, automatic rifles such as the AK-47, and grenades. I'm not a big fan of "spray and pray" in these types of games so I usually use the handguns since it's more accurate. The AI is what you'd expect for a contemporary shooter. If you shoot an enemy in the leg, he'll be less mobile. The enemies have a limited sense of self preservation in that they'll duck for cover. It's no Euphoria AI but it keeps the game challenging. Gamespot criticized the game as being overly difficult at times. I disagree. Intermediate and veteran gamers should be able to get into it quickly and though it's challenging, it's not difficult. At some points in the game though, you can quickly become hopelessly outnumbered. This made it a bit frustrating at times but it does make you reevaluate your tactics. Some parts of the game involve using turrets or driving vehicles in order to mix things up from the usual hide and shoot.
The game itself is about 10-15 hours long and can be beaten in a weekend or two. The replay value of it is a bit weak, which is why it didn't get a higher score than it did. However, that's typical of linear shooter games. There are extras that can be unlocked through finding treasures or accomplishing certain feats, which add a bit more to the replay value but are tedious to unlock. You can also try the game at different difficulty levels.

What else can I say about Uncharted? It's a fun, action packed 3rd Party shooter that feels and plays like a movie. Nathan Drake sure gives Laura Croft a run for her money. Rent of buy? I'd took the risk of buying it first and I was pleasantly surprised. There's a demo on PSN that you can download. The game's a lot of fun but you might want to try the demo or rent it first to see if it's your cup of tea. Naughty Dog has racked up 1 million sales as of today and they've already got a sequel in the works.

-Realistically rendered environments
-Realistic lighting
-Smooth as butter frame rates
-Excellent sound with good voice acting
-Fun gameplay with good controls
-Good storyline

-A bit weak on replay value

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Note: Like your college history professor, I rarely give a perfect score. There's always room for improvement, even in the best of the best. I try to write these game from the point of view of casual to intermediate gamers.

Leaving Comments: Revised

By Mike on 8:03 pm

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In an effort to combat spam and rude posters, I've locked comments to registered users. You'll have to register with Blogger. I did this to bring this blog more inline with other tech sites.

When posting comments remember the golden rule: treat others in the same way you would like to be treated.

Sony to Allow Legal BD Ripping?

By Mike on 7:21 pm

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Big news from the CES in Vegas this week regarding Playstation 3 and Blu-ray. Sony demoed a future PS3 feature which will allow PS3 owners to legally rip BD movies to their PSP or a memory stick. The converter rips the movie and downconverts it to a lower resolution for playback on their media player. This is all part of Sony's BD Live initiative which intends to expand on what we already see in special features, such as including games and ringtones on BD movie discs which can be downloaded to a BD Live player.

Depending on the DRM scheme Sony chooses to adopt for the downconverted movies, if any, this is a huge step forward for portable media player owners and the movie biz as a whole. For years, iPod and PSP owners have been clamoring to be able to painlessly rip DVDs they legally own for their own enjoyment on the go. With music increasingly going DRM-free, there may be hope for the movie industry after all. People want digital copies of their movies and music, but they want tangible copies as well since hard drives do fail. If they do this right for a change, we may see a revolution in the way we watch movies.

I'm not holding my breath though for this to become a reality. Many products demoed at shows like CES and E3 never see the light of day. Sony hasn't announced any release date for the software.

Source: PC World

Microsoft's Troubles over 360 Live

By Mike on 2:33 pm

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People sometimes wonder why I would buy a PS3 instead of a 360, considering 360 has the better games and has more players. I would hardly call myself a Sony fanboy since they've pulled a lot of crap in the past. However, with the trouble 360 users are having, choosing a next gen console was an easy decision.

Microsoft is getting sued over the Xbox 360 once again. This time it's over the Xbox Live service. Over the Christmas holidays, Microsoft's online service for the 360 suffered on and off again outages for about a week. Now, this wouldn't be a big deal except that Microsoft makes users pay for the service. This is in contrast to the online services offered by Sony and Nintendo which are both free. The class action law suit was filed at the Houston District Court and is seeking damages in excess of $5 million US. Xbox Live has roughly 7 million users world wide. According to Microsoft, the cause of the outages was a surge of new users onto the service, however, they should have been able to anticipate higher demand during the holidays and add more servers to accommodate. Microsoft will be giving away a free arcade game to all Live users as an apology for the issues, which I think is fair. It's rare for Microsoft to admit they made a mistake, so take advantage of it.

While I'm sure Live is a good service, I don't think users should be made to pay for it when comparable services offered by Sony and Nintendo are free. Xbox Live Gold costs $8.99 per month for Canadian users, or $59.99 for a one year subscription. A Silver (similar to Sony's Playstation Store) subscription is free but the Gold subscription is required for online multiplayer.

Crave: A Blog from CNET

Bluray vs HD-DVD: Is The War is Over?

By Mike on 1:09 pm

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Probably the most talked about piece of consumer technology for 2007 was the new high definition video formats: Sony's Blu-ray Disc (aka BD) and Toshiba's HD-DVD. This week, Warner Bros. made an announcement, they would be switching to Blu-ray exclusively. That same day, the people behind HD-DVD announced they were canceling a cocktail party at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The importance of this? The purpose of the party was to showcase the future of HD-DVD. The fact that it was canceled shows that they are no longer optimistic.

The two formats have been competing with each other since they were first released in the summer of 2006. Sony, as always produced its own proprietary high definition format. The question long lingered whether Blu-ray would be the next Betamax. For those who don't remember, Beta was Sony's ill fated attempt to produce its own VCR. While Beta was superior in terms of picture quality, tape length was too short to the point where many feature films could not fit on a single cassette. Marketing of the device was also poor. Sony has learned from its past failure. BD is the technically superior format. Unlike Beta, it can hold a lot more data than its competitor and it is capable of higher bit rates. Sony has also aggressively marketed BD. The drive was also included in the Playstation 3 console, which would get it into homes quicker.
HD-DVD on the other hand has barely been marketed at all. It's primary advantage though is that it's region free, meaning films from any country can be played on it. This makes it attractive for fans of foreign films and anime. However, this is a really small market but this feature does make it more consumer friendly.

If you're in the market for an HD player right now, Blu-Ray definitely looks to be your best bet. The powers that be at the studios have dictated that this is what they wanted. Of course we all know that they ultimately decide who wins, not the consumer. However, I'd still say to hold off on buying an HD player until all this settles down. To quote a famous movie character (who I hope will appear in HD one day soon) "always in motion the future is." HD-DVD may still have a wild card.

This month's reader poll deals with how you watch HD movies. Do you watch them on a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player? Do you watch them on regular network TV or specialty stations like TMN and HBO? Do you watch them through pay-per-view or video on demand services offered by your cable or satellite provider? This month's poll allows you to select multiple answers.