The Royal Palms Resort on Banoi Island has a terrible problem. An infestation has swept the tropical paradise and now a mindless, all-consuming horde lurks its sparkling sands and poolside bars.

But Aussie tourists aren’t the only horrible disaster to befall this small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea: a lesser but arguably more pressing evil is a freshly minted zombie plague.

Dead Island is a first-person sandbox survival game from Techland. Players will run, fight, be mauled and hope to survive an open world undead apocalypse.

We recently got an hour-long hands on that let us play through the early stages of the game, the usual tutorial mission that sets you the task of learning to run, duck and swing weapons and a brief look at the open nature of the game.

The opening scene sees the player, in the first-person perspective, wandering drunkenly around a club and being a nuisance to partygoers before attempting to get on stage with Miscellaneous-B, an interestingly dressed rapper who just happens to be waxing lyrical about voodoo and zombies. After being pushed from the stage the player is ejected from the bar, but not before one of the ladies who only seconds ago called you a “git” (guess which land girt by sea she hails from), lunges at the security and takes a chunk out of his neck.

In your stupor, it seems, you take no notice of the gushing blood and obviously-delicious humans around and head back to your hotel to wash down a couple of pills and hit the hay. It’s been a hard night of being an oblivious tool.

While in the land of nod character selection occurs, and four playable characters are on offer. It is in this character selection that a small taste of the touted “heavy RPG elements” comes into play. Each of the four characters has a specialisation that will affect their talent tree and the way players go about surviving Dead Island.

Xian Mei, for example, is promoted as proficient with sharp weapons. Purna prefers guns, Sam B is best with blunt weapons and Logan specialises in thrown weapons. These preferences are much more important later, when levelling and building a character come into effect.

First though, hangovers and zombie-infested hotels must be escaped. With the help of the mini-map and some none too subtle prompting, players are shown the ropes, click left stick to sprint, right to crawl and so on. With no weapons available in these opening passages of play, Dead Island throws the player hectic and occasionally startling run-for-your-life scenarios.

It's in the fractions of downtime during this escape that some of the beauty of the game shines through, a zombie free 10th floor veranda offers a great view of the tropical vistas – a moment of reflection as the sun peaks over far lush hills leaving everything awash in an ephemeral glow. Beautiful; if you could just tune out the roaring sound of unchecked fires and the screams of the human smorgasbord.

With the sturdy and seemingly easily defendable hotel shrinking into the distance, the player arrives at what has become a safe house for a handful of survivors: a thatch beach hut.

Inside is bleak; survivors cower in corners talking to themselves, crying, and are only too eager to espouse in great detail the awful things they have witnessed, or what they had to do to survive so far. Being a resort, catering to a varied international cliental, in addition to the near cringe-inducing heavy Aussie twang, players will hear a mixed bag of other subtle English-language accents.

Just outside the cardboard-thin front door, a man is attempting to fight off a horde of zombies. Rather than helping him themselves, the other refugees scold you for not saving him – a common theme through the early part of the game as you seem to be the only survivor capable exiting the house. The trick to Dead Island, we’re told, is not to ask why.

So it is with oar in hand that a first taste of combat is had and the visceral, melee focused nature of Dead Island is revealed. The target zombies have floating health bars offering both the level and variety of zombie. In addition to the experience points that come pouring out of their husks like they were rotten piñatas, these really drill home the RPG feel that comes through in moments of this game.

In the early play available there were only two zombie types on show the Walkers – the fodder – and the tougher Thugs, capable of hitting the player to the ground in a single swing if allowed to close. It’s worth pointing out here that Dead Island wears its influences on its sleeve. The team at Techland are fans of the TV series The Walking Dead, something evidenced by the term “Walker”.

Back to the combat, misjudging a weapon swing, or simply getting surprised leads to a quick time event to try to escape. Immediately, though, there is a slight disconnect as the range of your swing is often hard to gauge, even after 15 minutes of clubbing the shambling horde there were still extended periods of time spent swinging and repeatedly missing as we try to determine the active length of our chosen weapon.

Happily, when you do connect, there is a real sense of the damage delivered to both the target and the weapon. Body parts react to attacks and weapons will warp, splinter, bend or break as they are used. In the first scrap with the dead, the recently acquired oar was quickly broken down to a pointed stick after clearing a group of zombies off the hapless survivor.

Inside again and the recently rescued holiday-goer – toting a Mike Tyson-like facial tattoo and an Australian accent that could strip paint – turns out to be your early quest hub and sends you on missions to acquire security cards and retake the lifeguard base.

Trekking through the beachfront resort offers a brief glimpse of how much there is in the world to interact with. Most everything is useable, weapons can be found littering the beach and bags, luggage, chilli bins and many other cases offer loot in the form of money (which is still worth something and helps build or fix weapons) to bits and pieces to help craft new and better weapons.

Once the lifeguard base is secured quick-travel is available as long as you’ve discovered places to travel to and with hordes of zombies around every sun-drenched corner this system will surely be a popular addition. Along with quick travel, the newly fortified base serves as a hub for many side-quests that send you to all parts of the expansive island.

After acquiring enough experience, gained from killing zombies and completing quests, players will level up and can spend points in three skill trees. These unlock a variety of active and passive abilities. The trees are made up of a combat tree, used to increase weapon damage and fighting abilities, a survival tree to increase your character’s ability to endure, and a rage tree which increases your Rage abilities (an intriguing set of options not encountered in the hands-on).

There is still much to see in Dead Island, but the hour-long play was enough to give a fair impression about what to expect. Dead Island may be unfairly compared to other zombie survival games but a heavy focus on melee combat, the ability for players to build characters however they please means there is a depth here not seen before. Set for a September release this open world zombie survival title is one to keep an eye on.