Company of Heroes was one of the best real-time strategy games on the PC when it debuted back in 2006. Now the World War II game is returning as an online game with a brand new business model for the U.S. market.

Agoura Hills, Calif.-based THQ is announcing today that Company of Heroes Online will be released in the U.S. market as a free-to-play online game. That means players can try it out for free in online multiplayer matches. But if they want to accelerate their progress in the game, they can pay real money for virtual goods that can improve their experience in online play.

This game is a test of the market. Up until now, free-to-play games were often unbranded Asian titles that were unknown to Western gamers. But this game franchise is popular among PC gamers in the West, and it had an average review score of 93 out of 100 on Metacritic, which aggregates game review scores. It was one of the highest ranking real-time strategy games of all time.

If gamers gravitate to this title, it will show that Western gamers may embrace branded free-to-play experiences. Almost every Western publisher is trying this kind of experiment; Electronic Arts is operating its Battlefield Heroes game, while Take-Two Interactive is working on NBA 2K basketball online.

“In the past, our multiplayer experience was a quick game session that was over as soon as the match was over,” said Tim Holman, production director at Relic Entertainment, the developer that is making the game for THQ. “With this game, you get an extended experience over time.”

The new Company of Heroes Online game will be the same as the game that was released in 2006. You play either as the Americans or Germans during World War II, controlling a whole company of soldiers as they battle for control of a map. It’s played from a bird’s eye view of the action and is almost like playing with miniature toys. But the graphics are cool and the action can be quite fast, since the combat happens in real time, as each player makes moves simultaneously.

The single-player game is included for free, and the multiplayer game has been extended into a persistent online experience. That means that you can rank up as you win online multiplayer matches that involve as many as eight players.

You start by creating a commander character on either the Allied or Axis side. You can also select a class for your commander, such as hit-and-run airborne tactics or defender. For each match you win, you get points. You then get to spend those points on different features in the game that help you win matches. You can, for instance, use points to build destructive mortar teams, who can rain fire on enemies on the map or call in off-map artillery strikes. As you progress, you collect special abilities that you can choose to use in online matches to give your side an edge, such as faster speeds for your units. But players aren’t forced to buy anything in the game, as 90 percent of the items that you buy can be earned through game victories.

“The purchases you make are about making the game more convenient for players who want to level up faster,” Holman said. “It doesn’t give you an unfair advantage in a match.”

Last year, THQ teamed up with Shanda Games to create a free-to-play version of the game for China. Holman said the company started there because it is the hotbed of free-to-play. Interestingly, the game had been pirated in China, so much so that no legitimate copies were sold there. Those pirated copies had a good side effect; they served as marketing for the free-to-play online game, which requires players to log in and therefore defeats piracy attempts.

Then THQ created its own version for South Korea. That version was operated by Windysoft. Both of those games are still in operation and they have around 250,000 players. That isn’t huge, but it’s a promising start for THQ’s first major experiment in free-to-play games. The game is likely to fare better in the U.S. and European markets since the setting is the Normandy invasion. If it works out, both THQ and its Relic division have plenty of other real-time strategy game franchises that they could launch in the space. But for sure, they will probably do much better if they launch an original game as a free-to-play title. Then the bet on free-to-play would become much bigger.