A lot of players that grew up using 3.x and 4e have a real problem when coming back to 2e. I've noticed it repeatedly, and its very persistent across the board. Even one of my longtime regulars was once of this mindset before his complete and ultimate conversion to AD&D (I believe at my own hands). It's a strange hang-up that has to do with player choice and freedom and character creation, and I believe I can explain its root causes and the types of character it actually winds up creating.
I feel like I might be flogging a dead (or at the very least dying) horse here to state it, but 3.x and 4e are, (as 5e will be also, I'm sure) the product of a player's revolution. To protect themselves from bad DMs the players established ground rules about what they would allow and what they wouldn't. The chief and most noxious of those rules is that player choice means everything, and what the player wants goes; after all, the game is about fun, right?
The problem that I'm talking about specifically is the lack of creativity in character creation. Players of the later editions have come to identify creativity with playing monstrous races and picking strange classes. It's an easy sign of creativity if you are allowed to be a race that is rarely played (say, gnolls) and a class that is extremely specific (say, magical chef). These "concepts" dominate play in the modern systems. Elves, dwarves, etc. are often derided as being boring or even, in one case that I speak of from life, un-fantastical.
What could this possibly mean? Why is this drive present? Does it truly present some hitherto undreamed of level of creativity? Am I, due to my steadfast desire to repurpose and retrofit old fantasy tropes, somehow less creative than the teenager that wants to play a lifespark awakened canopy bed that knows how to use magic? The possibility exists, and I would be remiss if I didn't examine it before I dismissed it, as ludicrous as the idea seems to me.
My thesis in this argument, however, is going to be as follows: Creativity does not rely on how outlandish your character appears, acts, or seems. This is a false creativity, a shallow method of being creative that completely obscures real creativity. I believe it's a sort of trap that allows you to convince yourself you are being truly creative (after all, no one has thought of this combination of classes and races before) where in fact you are simply mashing together a series of unrelated concepts while jettisoning true potential for something that looks "cool."
So let's look at the first question; why are elves and dwarves, gnomes and halflings, and even men not fantastic? They are certainly tropes of the genre. Fantasy has dealt with these creatures since time immemorial. Grandaddy Tolkien laid most of them out in the beginning of beginnings, drawing on folklore that goes back probably to the Paleolithic. Sure, everyone who knows anything about fantasy knows about elves and dwarves; they're a staple. Does that mean they are not fantastic?
One certainly can't encounter them in one's every day life, or in fact in any life one might live at all on this particular earth. That already puts them in a realm of fantasy for me. I don't think it's fair to judge their level of fantasy based on your own particular familiarity with them as a trope or race in other genre-works. I've gone through great lengths to make them unique and yet archetypal, special and different yet still certainly elves and dwarves in the 10th Age. And even if I hadn't, one cannot simply say that all elves and dwarves are boring without reading the relevant setting material. The fact of the matter is, all elves and dwarves are different based on the setting in which they are encountered. If the simple aesthetic shape of the race is boring you, I would suggest you have a very shallow understanding of creativity.
The second question: is the character creation process of 3.x more "creative" than that of 2e? Does playing a race that is non-human and non-standard make your character a better creation? What is gained by this? Well, first of all, an easy and quick mark of creativity is available. No one has to wait and listen while you explain your elf's history with the blade or how he accidentally killed a noble child he was training in the art of the sword and is now an exile. People can just look at your character and know they are different. Wow, they may say, there goes a gnoll smoking a cigar and wearing a trenchcoat. Look at how creative he was to mix in noir with fantasy.
Is that more creative or less? Does that take more work than rehabilitating real fantasy tropes and turning them into realistic, even gritty, characters? I can come up with these ideas for 3.x characters at a mile a minute because there are no restrictions. Sure, they'll be silly, but they're creative... if creativity is defined as being without limits or boundaries. But true creativity isn't about being allowed to make whatever thing that comes into your head. Everyone can think ridiculous thoughts. It requires real creativity to realize them in a way that is also worthwhile. Rules help us do this.
Story structure is a good example. If you wrote a story and refused to follow a format that people could get into by, for example, omitting all the vowels, you might have done something creative by the standard of doing whatever you want. You certainly did not make anything of value; I can create this story today, easily, and puzzle people for a generation. To add some kind of value to an endeavor of that nature, you need to go beyond the simple act of making it.
So, you naysayers, stop running over to ogres and demons, gnolls and flinds and orcs and cows and oil lamps. Take a minute to appreciate both the challenge and the wonder of the standard PHB races. This game isn't about expressing your innermost desire to be a flying orb of water that can cast spells and is a great diplomat; it's about exploring the depth of fantasy tropes. And these great wide nets you cast for more "creative" characters never reach the deeps, but stay mired in the shallows.