Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire plays primarily as a third-person shooter. Players control Dash Rendar, the game's protagonist. Rendar has use of a blaster pistol which recharges after each shot, but the player character can also pick up additional powerups which provide other properties to the gun. In later levels of the game Rendar acquires a jetpack which can be used to traverse larger gaps. The player character has limited health, which can be replenished with health packs located throughout the game. The player is given lives to complete the game. Additional lives can be acquired, however if the player runs out of lives a game over sequence occurs. Each level is timed and up to three challenge points can be received for performing specific actions or finding hidden tokens.
The game features other, non-shooter elements. In the game's opening level the player controls Rendar as he pilots a snowspeeder in defense of the Rebel base on Hoth. 360 degree space battles occur in which the player character controls the turret of the protagonist's ship, the Outrider. These levels task the player with destroying a specific number of enemy ships. Other space sequences see the player character pilot the ship, utilizing its forward cannons to destroy targets. In one sequence the player controls the protagonist during a high speed chase sequence on swoop bikes. In this sequence the player must both control the swoop and attack and eliminate an enemy gang before reaching the destination.