EA has released the first trailer for Battlefield Heroes, a new free-to-play version of its popular Battlefield franchise.

Battlefield Heroes takes the series in a new direction, with cartoon-style graphics (think: Team Fortress 2 meets Battlefield) and simplified gameplay that is intended to give the game more mass-market appeal. The game will have lower system requirements, and as a free download EA is expecting it to reach a wider audience than previous titles.

It will be the first game released under EA's "Play 4 Free" business model, which will see the game funded by revenue from advertising and micropayments. However, advertisements will only appear on the web site and in the game's front end menus, not while playing the game.

Players will be able to customise their in-game character by purchasing upgrades to their appearance, clothing and weapons using micropayments. The customisations will not give any gameplay advantage.

Watch the trailer here, or download it in full HD.

Battlefield Heroes will feature a matchmaking system so that players are paired up with opponents of similar skill level. Players will level up when winning (possibly up to 40-50 levels) and will be matched against players within a couple of levels of their own.

The game is played in a third-person perspective, and will be mechanically similar to Battlefield's conquest mode, with players fighting over control points and winning by depleting the opposing team's ticket count. There will be two armies, the Royal Army (British and, strangely, Yanks, by the looks of it) and the National Army (who talk like Jerries).

The classes have been simplified down to three: Commando (light), Soldier (medium) and Gunner (heavy), with each having its own set of weapons and abilities. Spawn time has been reduced to five seconds, and an "Intelligent Spawn System" will automatically put players close to the nearest battle.

There will also be a "long-running territorial meta-game" on the web site.

“We put a different twist on this Battlefield game going with the cartoon-style graphics and gameplay,” said Ben Cousins, Senior Producer at EA DICE in a news release. “There’s something here for all types of players -- be it our core Battlefield fans or casual gamers. With the new online model, we will continually add new content to keep the game fresh and keep players engaged, while integrating player feedback in real time. As a game developer, it is such a cool new way to make games.”

In a BBC interview, Cousins elaborated: "I've always felt there was some really good fun core gameplay which was locked away by several barriers to entry: the game (Battlefield) is complex, it is full of skilled people, you need quite a high-end PC on which to play and you need to go to store to purchase a copy. We're removing all barriers to entry and we hope there is broader audience for the title. You will be able to play this game on grandma's laptop."

Most players would not spend any money in the game, he said, but cited EA Sports's FIFA as an example of a game that has been successful using the free-to-play model in Asia. "If you look at Korea and Asia this is a model that works. Given the enormous explosion in web-based gaming products, this is going to be a real source of growth in the industry and Battlefield Heroes is the first step towards doing that in the West."

Battlefield Heroes is due out in the northern hemisphere summer (that's winter, down here) this year, for PC only. It's not yet clear whether it will be available in New Zealand or only playable from the US and Europe--we'll keep you posted.

Update: There was an earlier rumour that the game would only be available in the US and Europe. This has apparently been quashed, with the developers stating that anyone will be able to play it. "Battlefield Heroes is available as a free download from the web, and as such would probably be available even if you connect to the internet via a satellite dish from a small unheated hut on the steppes of Uzbekistan."