Swordsmen can work as a parent unit, of course they aren't as good as Halberds, but that doesn't mean they are not viable.
That being said, I would suggest using them as a detachment and not a main unit, 15-20 could work well.
I'll just throw out a few ideas of what I think it's good to have in an Empire army:
Warrior Priests/Arch Lector - No matter which you use, Hatred + Prayers + channel + decent fighting states means these guys are a strong, strong choice to field in an army.
Halberds - If you're bringing Halberds, you'll want a lot I usually bring 30-50 depending on my point size, but since you're starting out 20+ will probably work well, if you find them dying too fast just add more.
Magic is important, so buying a mage box could be a good idea, at lower point games magic isn't going to be a huge devastating thing most of the time, but higher up (1500+) it can be crippling to play an army with a level 4 when you have no magic outside of WPs.
Battle Standard Bearer (BSB) - This is a pretty important unit though he can be hard to fit into smaller games with adequate protection, re-rolls for break tests can make or break you (haha pun).
I would stay away from Crossbowmen/Handgunners, as I've had poor results with them and they don't seem to earn back their points or provide much tactical advantage. Archers are better for the most part. That being said, since a unit of HG/CBs comes in the battalion you can use them as a wizard bunker or something.
Outside of those units I can honestly say the Empire doesn't have too many bad choices, sure there are units that I think are better than others (For example I feel like the Hurricanum is better than the Luminark) but you can still build a viable army as long as you don't go overboard in one area (Example: All Knights, all missile troops, literally nothing but halberds, etc.)
And if you're looking at tanking a steam tank, I say go for it. 1000 point steam tanks my be considered cheese by some people, but I don't think it's that horrible.