GameSpot have been busy, and have snagged an interview with James Ohlen and a developer video about companion characters.
What is new is "Companions have a class and can also level up and gain a full suite of combat abilities. They have their own ability bar, just like the players do. Players can also modify the artificial intelligence of their companions' behavior on the fly". Now I hope a companion automatically levels with you, and you don't have to grind out XP for your companion, like a pet in WoW.
Will having more abilities to click on make the real time combat harder? Ohlen says not: "We added a system where players can customize the AI of their companions. You can decide exactly which abilities your companions will use and which they won't use". Now again there are two extremes I've seen with this. In Mass Effect 1, companions can be told to auto cast their abilities and they do when they feel like it. In Dragon Age Origins, there is a complex strategies interface for micro-programming party members which is just a little much. From the video, it appears you can enable or disable an ability, and the companion will cast it automatically in combat.
What is also interesting is that the order you get companions in is determined by your class and the story you are playing through. The example given in the video was that a Sith Inquisitor will get a tanking companion early on, who will taunt enemies and keep them damaging him, so your Inquisitor can stay at range and play at ranged DPS. This is both incredibly useful for solo play, but also amazingly clever at teaching you your role in future group play. Being ranged means trying to keep enemies at range, if they get close, the gameplay can get annoying and your effectiveness is reduced. Being given your own personal tank for playing ranged is very cool.
One of the criticisms of WoW and other MMOs is that the solo play experience does not really prepare you for the group play - you don't learn to manage your threat or stay at range, or keep mobs off your healer or damage dealer. The companion system in TOR promises to actually help with this, as ranged DPS with a tank companion you will quickly learn not to pull aggro off the mobs, you may also throw some heals in to keep your tank alive. As a tank with a healer companion, you will be learning to keep the attention of the enemies and keep them off your healer. So hopefully the companion system will mean players will be more effective in Flashpoints and Operations, which can only be a good thing.
The video is embedded below for your convenience: