I believe now that they were always intending having a vertical progression but at a slow and subtle rate. The introduction of Ascended gear caused a spike which would not have been there if it were already in the game. Now they can go back to slow and subtle. Yes, there was an end in sight before and it was achievable and I think that's their long-term plan. The problem is that bridging of gaps right now is supposed to be long-term 'work' aka grind. I think it would have been more fun if you had to do a lot of scavenger hunts to gather parts over time rather than outright grinding for tokens and mats and what have you. I believe they haven't really used much of their potential by resorting to standard solutions which are giving you some awkward dejavu's instead.