Lured by the promise of quick money, Matt Stuvysunt arrives in London in early 1953. A meeting with his not very sympathetic, but nevertheless fascinating aquaintace Briggs provides him with a used car, some startup money and at least a faint idea where to start: a small kiosk somewhere out of town. Low gain, but also close to zero risk. Briggs himself is obviously up to something a lot bigger.
Only one problem has yet to be overcome. Matt can't drive a car, and just running away after the successful coup is hardly practical. So he hangs around in the well-known underworld bars looking for an accomplice with this missing ability. It doesn't prove to be that hard, and after one evening of plotting in Matt's hotel room, a few minutes of actual work and a visit to the local fences, the protagonist's riches have been multiplied - even after giving the driver his or her share. After this encouraging experience, Matt decides to continue this line of enterprise, slowly going up to harder targets...
Der Clou (published in English-speaking countries as The Clue) presents itself with graphics and controls commonly used in Adventure games. The upper part displays a big clock or in conversations the head of who's talking and a speech bubble. The middle part shows the current location and the lower part is reserved for a list of verbs with which Matt's actions are controlled. On a technical sidenote, it's quite interesting that these three 'frames' use different resolutions - all on one screen simultanously.
The graphical panorama of the location makes it extremely easy to find one's way around. The controls work very efficiently, too, with the only complaint being that it's quite hard to use a mouse, because it has to be pointed exactly on the right spot of each verb to 'highlight' it, and clicks aren't even registered by the game in more than half of the cases. After a few minutes of fruitless trying, most players will switch to the safer and more exact keyboard usage.
So, since the game bureaucracy is managable, the player can concentrate on the contents. Basically, Matt is trying to find as many potential allies as possible and then directs their moves and actions on the drawing board of a planned burglary. Every character has a set of abilities which vary in nature and quality. Matt's own talents are pretty wide-spread: He can open locks, knows something about electronics, has seen a few safes and he can stay guard. At the beginning of the game, none of these abilities are much to speak of, but he gets better over time. Other characters are different. You might run across London's greatest expert for explosives who can't do anything but blow things up. Or you'll meet a retired boxer who used to drive racing cars in his free time.
Choosing the right people is an important part of the job, but it's equally important to have the right tools available. Smashing in glass with a hammer in central London will alert the police immediately. Cutting it silently won't, but it takes longer. A steel door won't budge if you approach it with a crowbar. And so on.
Planning all this is the central part of the game. Matt is the 'mastermind' behind all the burglaries, so the player has to work out exactly who does what at which time. Fine-tuned work is needed, because otherwise, one of the characters might suddenly find himself in front of a locked door which he assumed somebody else had opened or someone might even trigger the alarm or walk directly into the spotlight of a surveillance camera.
When the plan's finished, you can carry it out. If everything has been planned well, it'll work out fine. In case something goes wrong, all you can do is hope that your driver and car are better than that of the police...
The game offers a light learning curve, slowly guiding the player from easy tasks such as the one described at the beginning of this review to more complex ones. Gradually, new 'security features' are sneaking in: alarm, cameras, microphones, guards and many other things are waiting to be dealt with. Sometimes, all of them at once, turning a burglary into a sophisticated puzzle.
However, Der Clou doesn't stop there. Everything you're doing is integrated into a storyline which will eventually get you involved with the mafia and stealing the crown jewels. Or you can run away with the woman of your dreams mid-game.
This sounds good, but it's actually the biggest downside of the game. After some time, the events force themselves on the player, and there's no way to avoid them. Suddenly, Matt gets into a depressive phase, sleeping most of the day instead of plotting burglaries. Worst of all: the outcome of these final 'missions' which have to be played have close to no influence on the story at all. The first of those is to get a suitcase from a villa. If you do steal it, you trip and spill the contents on the floor of your hotel room: drugs. If you don't manage to get the suitcase or if you ignore the task completely, the suitcase will end up in your room anyway. So it always ends with you running away from the mafia. Same with the next mission (stealing the crown jewels). Whether you manage to get them or not doesn't have any influence - you always get to the next (and final) mission in which you have to steal some secret documents.
This final mission has a nice twist to it: You have to take care that your three accomplices are caught by the police while you get away. This is probably where the game's title comes from (sidenote: The Redford/Newman movie The Sting is called Der Clou in Germany...). Again, a very good idea in theory, but the execution is horrible. Basically, it's next to impossible to win this final mission, because the player gets too little information about what the 'victory conditions' are.
This unsatisfying ending and the basically good (slow) beginning put together are framing the amazingly well-done and interesting middle part of the game in which the player can take on the interesting challenges while retaining free choice of target. The easiness of the first few burglaries makes them uninteresting for experienced players picking up the game again, though, so there's actually only a few 'turns' to get to the real meat (the targets combining several security measures and requiring really careful planning).
Judged just from this brief part, Der Clou is excellent fun. And even though the problems described above can't be explained away, the save/load function can easily turn it into an endless serious of interesting missions instead of too simple (early) or plainly silly (last few) ones. That is why it deserves its very good rating.
The only thing which could have been done even better would be the number of available targets. The 'Profidisk' which was released a year after the game added eight more of those, but once you've 'solved' a target, it loses much of its attraction. So, although this addon provides additional fodder, it doesn't solve the inherent problem of having pre-defined missions.
Finally, a few words on the different versions. There's hardly any difference between ECS and AGA versions. The AGA version (obviously) uses a bigger colour depth (hardly noticable), has some additional music and the planning stage looks a little more elegant. Basically, since they're so close, the AGA version makes the other one obsolete, so do yourself a favour and get that one.