First, thank to Darren for summing this up well. They have finally broken the silence on book 9 and they are taking a page out of Blizzard's book and only raising the cap 5 levels, thus making things less frustrating for those of us super casuals who have only reached 59 so far (me) and only run a couple of the dungeons and were still looking forward to running some, yet pleasing the hardcore people with more content that doesn't totally obliterate their old progress. Making things more gradual is fine and dandy and welcome.
As far as skirmishes with helpers go.. I am happy about it. It provides an option better than true soloing but not quite as good as playing with real people. Players will alwyas be better due to true intelligence if not for the fact that they are also usually more powerful than NPC's, but its nice to see some new party mechanics being developed for the game too.
I like the fact that they are taking a detour to Mirkwood. This is good. Pushing straight for Rohan with mounted combat would have been something EA would have done. Turbine lakes their time to expand the world and help people smell the roses. I finally got into Lothlorien this last week also adn it was gorgeous. Really. The music is awesome. The ambience is way better than Rivendell. It's a must see.
I'd personally rather they expand north a bit more and get the rest of mirkwood, the eastern misty mountains, and connect it all, but Rohan beckons so likely that's what's on their plate for next year while they figure out how to do mounted combat which they act like is some huge feat. (Nevermind that Age of Conan, Darkfall, and so many other games have already implemented it with lower budgets... yeah I have no sympathy for them in this, if they want to do it right jsut look at how its done in Zelda, twilight princess. Now that's fun mounted combat.)
Anyways I like what they are doing. the legendary weaopns need help so hopefully they umm.. fix them correctly, and the fortress of Dol Guldur sounds like a fine place to have as an end game for a while. Maybe we'll get Fanghorn next instead of the Lonely mountain but oh well. They should add Beorn's people as a new race capable of shapeshifting... yeah...